Ten cases dropped due to delays in military justice system: auditor

OTTAWA — The federal auditor general fired a rocket at Canada’s military justice system Tuesday, citing a failure to deal with persistent and unnecessary delays as the reason several serious cases have had to be abandoned in recent years.

Michael Ferguson assigned blame to all involved for the glacial pace with which military justice is dispensed, including military police, prosecutors, commanding officers and the Judge Advocate General.

Among the problems: lengthy investigations; delays in deciding whether to lay charges; overly long periods of time setting up courts martial; and even issues with regards to letting accused service personnel access defence lawyers.

As a result, 10 court-martial cases have been dropped since January 2016 because they didn’t move along fast enough, Ferguson revealed, including one that was already underway and involved a charge of assault causing bodily harm.

“Delays run counter to the principle that an accused has the right to a speedy trial,” Ferguson told a news conference after his spring report was tabled in Parliament. “They also leave victims and their families waiting for answers.”

The Canadian Forces has known about the problems “for at least a decade,” the auditor added, “but has failed to correct them.”

The military has been working to stamp out sexual misconduct in the ranks after some victims complained that their cases were not being properly handled.

Tuesday’s report comes only a few weeks after the Trudeau government unveiled proposed legislation designed to streamline parts of the military justice system while better supporting the rights of victims, a bill Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan highlighted on Tuesday.

“The auditor general’s recommendations will greatly assist us in ensuring that the military justice system continues to serve the best interests of Canadians and the armed forces,” Sajjan said.

“There have been unacceptable delays in the military justice system and we have already started to make improvements.”

The Defence Department also said it was introducing a new computer system to better track cases and ensure they don’t suffer from lengthy delays. It is expected to be up and running in September 2019.

But Ferguson repeatedly lamented what has become a pattern in which ministers and departments say all the right things in response to his reports by agreeing with his findings and promising to address them, only to have them come up again later.

“There were a number of studies done over the last 10 years indicating that the Canadian Armed Forces need to improve the military justice system,” he said.

“I don’t think there ever is a good explanation for why recommendations like that are not followed up.”

In most of the cases reviewed by Ferguson and his staff, officials involved did not provide any justification for the time taken, even though it often exceeded established standards.

The average case that did go to court martial ended up taking 17.7 months from the time charges were laid, the auditor general’s report said — just inside the 18-month limit set by the Supreme Court for most cases in 2016.

That limit applies to military tribunals as well.

Better communication between the different parts of the military justice system and case management from the top is what’s called for, Ferguson said, adding that a comprehensive review of the system is long overdue.

The Judge Advocate General, which acts as superintendent of the military justice system, did conduct a partial review last year in which some senior commanders voiced their own frustration with system, including how slowly it operates.

But both the JAG and Ferguson said there were problems with the way that review was conducted.

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