Justice ministers craft plan to unclog court systems

Justice ministers from across Canada have identified priority areas for major overhaul in a bid to end chronic court delays.

After a daylong emergency meeting in Gatineau, Que., the ministers mapped out a game plan to speed up the criminal justice system. Their review will target key areas for reform, including:

- Mandatory minimum sentences.

- Bail reforms.

- Administration of justice offences.

- Preliminary hearings.

- Reclassification of offences.

Federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould promised to expedite efforts to fill judicial vacancies as one way to address court delays. She said innovation and restorative justice will be used to speed up the system.

While no concrete measures were agreed on, Wilson-Raybould called the meeting "substantive" and a "success," and said all ministers are committed to transformative change to decrease delays.

Ensuring public confidence

Chronic delays and backlogs took on a new urgency after the Supreme Court of Canada's Jordan ruling last July. That landmark 5-4 judgment put timelines on an accused criminal's right to a trial; within 18 months in provincial court or 30 months in a superior court.

Wilson-Raybould called that top court decision a "call to action."

"Certainly nobody wants a situation where a serious charge is stayed because of [delay]. We all reiterated around the table that we will do everything we can to ensure public confidence in the criminal justice system," she said.

Her department's review of mandatory minimum sentences, many of them brought in by the former Conservative government, would give more discretion to judges and encourage more accused persons to make plea deals by brokering lesser sentences. She said the first wave of legislative changes are expected to be tabled this spring.

Many criminal cases, including murder and assault charges, have been stayed as a result of the Jordan decision.

Quebec Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée said the reforms must work to make sure an accused person does not walk free because too much time has passed.

"There are many things that we need to change in order to treat files better," she said. "We will be respectful of the constitutional rights of Canadians, but we will also at the same time be respectful of the victims and their families, and the right for society to see justice being rendered."

Push to move quickly

Vallée expressed hope that legal reforms will move expeditiously through Parliament.

"I hope all the parliamentarians in the House of Commons will understand the need to push this ahead quickly," she said.

​Ontario Attorney General Yasir Naqvi said the Jordan decision provided the "incentive to be bold."

"We're taking that challenge, we're rising up to it," he said, adding that the collective system must strike the right balance between upholding the rights of victims as well as the accused.

Ontario is investing millions to add resources to ease the pressure on the system, from lawyers and judges to legal aid counsel and court staff. 

Naqvi said changes to substantive law and procedure will build a faster, more fair criminal justice system to keep communities safe.