Delays in court explained by Slave Lake’s judge
Why do court cases drag on so long? That topic has been on the mind of Provincial Court Judge William Paul; last week he took some time out of his busy schedule to talk with the Leader about it. He spoke about how the system runs and why court proceedings take so long.
“The justice system has a lot of moving parts,” says Judge Paul.
It starts with the people on the ground. On the front lines are police officers, peace officers and others who have authority to detect and prevent crime. When they find offenders and lay charges – that is when it reaches the court system.
“We have always believed in the court system,” says Judge Paul. “Justice delayed is justice denied.”
That principle, he says, has been reinforced by every judge in court, and every police officer and prosecutor in the country; also by the supreme court of Canada. Accordingly, Paul explains, the Supreme Court of Canada has told judges from the Provincial Court system that if they do not have matters conducted from the laying of the charge to the beginning of the trial within 18 months that it is unreasonable. It is a breach of the accused’s right to a timely trial, guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Judge Paul states trials in a Provincial Court are given nine to 13 months.
He explains that is the average time for every provincial court, including those in Calgary, Edmonton, Red Deer, Grande Prairie and Fort McMurray; the big cities and all of the northern circuit courts and so forth.
Paul says Provincial Courts handle about 98 per cent of all criminal matters within courts in this country.
The Court of Queens Bench handles the very serious matters; primarily murders and some very serious sexual assaults and those serious matters where the accused elects to be tried in Court of Queens Bench.
“So our Provincial Courts are very very busy places,” Judge Paul says. “The average in this province has nine to 13 months to get a trial, Yet I could give someone a trial on Monday,” he says, adding, “there is still trial time in this court.”
In the case of a very serious sexual assault, for example, the courts try to find a stand-alone date because they take longer and deserve more attention. Paul says he has dates available through all of January, February and March where he could accommodate almost anything.
“Slave Lake is not your average centre for delay,” he says, “but that is not to say that there are not matters that are delayed.”
The latest trial that Judge Paul has set for Slave Lake at the present time is June 26.
“That’s really only six months down the road. So we’re still well, well, well within this nine to 13.”
Judge Paul explains when trials are set, they don’t only have to worry about court time. The lawyers have to be available and witnesses have to be available, including police officers who are stretched out to different courts.
In cases such as drug and firearm charges the crown prosecutor has to verify the drugs and prove the firearm is a firearm, based on a technical definition. This all takes time.
Judge Paul states there are cases where in spite of the assumption of innocence, they are guilty. The defendant knows, the police know and the crown knows that, he says, but sometimes delay is the friend of those types.
If they’re going to go to jail, they don’t want to go in July and August; they might want to wait and put it off until January or February when it is cold.
Judge Paul says on a first appearance, the accused almost as a right gets to put their case over to consult with a lawyer. He clarifies a lot of these people are broke. They have no ability to walk into a lawyer’s office and plunk down 1,000 or 2,000 dollars. Judge Paul states they have to go through the process.
Sometimes people say the first time, I need a lawyer and time, can you give me two or three weeks?
“We’ll say yes.”
The defendant will leave, apply to legal aid and legal aid says no, this is the type of offense that we won’t cover unless there’s a risk that you’re going to go to jail if you’re convicted.
Judge Paul says they then have to come back and tell the court they still need a lawyer, but legal aid needs a letter before proceeding
Quite often they’ve got their lawyer by the second time.
Judges are also very mindful of the nature of the case, Paul says. For example, if it’s a very serious charge, judges are reluctant to force a non- represented person to go into a trial, or to consider their position or to plea bargain (agreement between a defendant and a prosecutor) with the crown.
Judges were told by the courts of appeal how to deal with unrepresented accused; they are given information packages. The packages are available in most courthouses. They’re given out free. The idea is that the courts point these people in the right direction.
So those are some of the factors in what makes a court case drag on, or appear to. But Paul stresses there’s nothing unusual about the circumstances in Slave Lake.
“It’s not a great deal worse in any of our northern courts than it is at any other courts,” he says.