The head of a review of B.C.'s justice system has issued a challenge to reduce to six months the time it takes to reach a final decision on a typical court case.
"I think we need to start talking in terms of days and weeks and not months and years," lawyer Geoffrey Cowper said Thursday during a media briefing after issuing a final report with suggested reforms to increase timeliness and accessibility.
"I think we should be looking at simply not countenancing or tolerating any case that takes longer than six months."
In his report, Cowper says the government should set a Criminal Justice and Public Safety Council that would draft a province-wide justice plan that would implement reform, set timeliness goals and develop a system to track whether those goals are being met.
He says individual Crown prosecutors should be assigned to take ownership over files from the outset, and legal aid lawyers should be assigned to particular court locations so they deal with the same offenders.
Such a change, says Cowper, would require a prosecutor to make a reasonable offer on sentencing early in a case. That would discourage an accused person from waiting until the first day of trial in the hopes that he or she may receive a lighter sentence for a guilty plea or that no-shows among witnesses would jeopardize the case, he says.
The justice system suffers from a "culture of delay," Cowper said because it's comfortable for lawyers and judges.
"We have to become uncomfortable, we have to become comfortable with the fact that timeliness needs to become a necessity," Cowper told the media.
Last year, more than 100 cases were stayed because of court delays, and when Cowper began his review in February, there were roughly 2,500 cases before provincial court that had been there for more than 18 months.
At least two judges used decisions from the bench to criticize the provincial government for underfunding the justice system, particularly when it came to the number of judges currently sitting.
Cowper rejected a provincial court proposal to appoint 18 new judges, concluding that five is more appropriate. He said the backlog of cases has declined recently and that other reforms will make significant increases in judicial appointments unnecessary.
Cowper also rejected a suggestion that police be permitted to approve charges against accused offenders. Currently, the Crown oversees the charge approval process based on evidence provided by police.
Justice Minister Shirley Bond said Cowper's report will be taken into consideration as part of developing a white paper to be released in two stages this fall. The paper will also take into consideration reports from the Legal Services Society, the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry and other sources.
Asked about Cowper's comment that no case should take more than six months, Bond agreed the process takes too long but also said outcomes like safer communities, reduced recidivism and lowering the crime rate matter most.
"It's not speed for the sake of speed," she said.
- with files from Canadian Press