B.C.’s once-jammed court system seems to be coming unstuck.
A new B.C. Provincial Court report on court congestion shows 1,265 criminal cases now in the justice system have waited more than 18 months to get to trial.
That number has fallen almost 50 per cent from a peak three years ago of more than 2,500 criminal cases waiting so long they were in danger of being tossed out.
The average delay for a half-day criminal trial has declined to less than six months – better than the province’s target – from more than 10 months in 2010, when judges issued their original “Justice Delayed” report criticizing court conditions.
Two-day trials that had waited almost a year in 2010 are now getting trial dates within seven months.
Justice Minister Suzanne Anton said in a statement she hopes the trend of less delay for criminal trials continues as the province explores more options for justice reform.
“The number of new cases continues to decline and we are having ongoing discussions with the judiciary on how best to determine the appropriate number of judges to support the system,” she said.
As of June, 57 per cent of all cases faced delays of six months or less to trial, while 84 per cent faced delays of no more than a year.
More than 100 accused criminals walked free in 2011 due to excessive court delays, but that number fell to 66 last year.
B.C.’s shift to roadside impaired driving penalties administered by police, instead of prosecuting drunk drivers has helped reduce pressure on the courts.
The province is also looking at family law reforms and moving small claims cases out of courtrooms to administrative tribunals.
Some courthouses still face longer waits, according to the latest report.
Abbotsford, Fort St. John and Dawson Creek had 10-month waits to trial for two-day cases, as of Sept. 30, while Surrey, Williams Lake and Quesnel were nine months.
Two years earlier, the worst courthouses, such as Surrey, were mired in 13- to 16-month waits.
The latest “Time to Trial” report shows less improvement for civil cases, with family law trials and child protection hearings still taking significantly longer than the provincial target to get heard.
Child protection hearing waits are worst in Abbotsford (13 months), Chilliwack and Surrey (both 11 months.)
Critics say the province’s failure to adequately fund legal aid has clogged family law courts in particular, as too many people try to represent themselves.
Although the province appointed 19 Provincial Court judges since 2012, others have retired and the overall complement has held steady in recent years, down about 10 per cent from pre-2009 levels.
Anton said more money isn’t the only solution to the system’s challenges, adding more emphasis is being put on improved courthouse administration.
NDP justice critic Leonard Krog said the improvement is partly due to the province taking a more cooperative, less confrontation approach to the judiciary.
“It’s trending in the right direction,” Krog said, but added more must be done.
“It’s great that people on the criminal justice side are getting more access to justice. It’s disappointing that ordinary citizens seeking justice on the family and civil side still face significant delays.”
Statistics from the B.C. Provincial Court shows the severe criminal trial delays of 2010-11 have subsided.