Two years ago, an Ontario Superior Court Justice slammed the Canadian justice system, saying lengthy court delays are eroding our rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
But apparently nobody was listing — and still is not listening, as witnessed Monday in Red Deer’s Court of Queens’s Bench when Justice Monica Bast entered a stay of proceedings in a case of three people charged in a home invasion.
Lawyers for brothers Zachariah and Christopher Nwarbie, and a girlfriend to one of the brothers, Meagan Nicole Gaalaas, successfully argued that their clients were denied their rights to a speedy trial. And based on precedent-setting cases by the Supreme Court of Canada, Bast was justified in her decision.
Canada’s courts are bulging at the seams with a logjam of cases, frustrating judges, defence lawyers and Crown prosecutors, leading to multiple cases being scrubbed.
And the key culprits, say experts, are our governments. They lack the will to open up the purse strings to ensure the justice system conforms to the Charter — and protects the public.
Monday’s case took more than two years to finally come to court. Lawyers Patty MacNaughton, Michael Scrase and Andrew Phypers blamed the delay on a lack of Court of Queen’s Bench justices in Red Deer.
“Their charter rights were violated,” argued MacNaughton, citing Section 11(b) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, “which is the right to be tried within a reasonable time.”
Scrase said “We’re suffering as a result of the lack of resources at this point.” He said there have been suggestions of adding another justice in the Red Deer circuit, but nothing has materialized. This city currently has three Queen’s Bench justices.
Justice Garry Trotter of Ontario’s top court said two years ago that the court system in his province is stretched to the limits, undermining the right of some accused to a speedy trial.
“This regular occurrence diminishes the quality of justice and causes frustrations for the judiciary, counsel, witnesses and, most importantly, accused persons.”
Trotter continued: “It’s troubling that 30 years after proclamation of the right to a speedy trial, that right remains precarious in some jurisdictions.”
Canadian Press reports that dozens of criminal cases have been scrubbed across Canada.
And Alberta is hurting big time.
The Red Deer trio were charged after a May 27, 2012, home invasion in the city. Charges included break and enter, assault, robbery and assault with a weapon.
Those charges can carry a sentence of 10 years in prison.
Twenty-seven and half months after their arrest, they finally made it to Queen’s Bench. The Advocate reported the three were scheduled for a trial starting on Oct. 1, 2013, but were double booked with another trial. The earlier booking proceeded and the home-invasion case was set over for another year.
Alberta needs 12 more Court of Queen’s Bench justices just to be on par with British Columbia, said Josh Stewart, press secretary for the Alberta Justice minister. Stewart told the Advocate that “Alberta has the fewest Queen’s Bench judges per capita in Canada, with only one Queen’s Bench judge per 61,925 people.”
In 1990, the Supreme Court of Canada established guidelines for judges to determine if an accused person’s rights “to be tried within a reasonable time” under Section 11(b) of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms have been violated.
In the precedent-setting Askov v. R judgment, the Supreme Court ruled, in part: “A quick resolution … also has important practical benefits, since memories fade with time, and witnesses may move, become ill or die.
Victims, too, have a special interest in having criminal trials take place within a reasonable time, and all members of the community are entitled to see that the justice system works fairly, efficiently and with reasonable dispatch.”
The top court continued: “The failure of the justice system to do so inevitably leads to community frustration with the judicial system and eventually to a feeling of contempt for court proceedings.”
According to Precedent Magazine, an Ontario publication for young lawyers, six months following the top court’s Askov ruling, “the federal government threw out over 34,000 charges, many of them drug-related cases.” And in Ontario, it was reported that 47,000 criminal charges were stayed or withdrawn over the course of a year.
Last year, the Addario Law Group from Toronto, a firm specializing in constitutional law, took the federal government to task over alleged lack of spending that it claimed was eroding our constitutional rights.
The group said: “Although there is a right to a speedy trial in Canada, its enforcement is an empty promise. For the last quarter century, police and prosecution budget increases sent more and more criminal cases into the court system.”
The comment continued: “The justice system began bulging at the seams. Government responded with a shrug, making the business decision to spend money elsewhere.
The result was not enough courts, judges or resources to handle all the cases.”
As Martin Luther King Jr. once wrote: “Justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
Rick Zemanek is a former Advocate editor.