Ottawa calls meeting of justice ministers to deal with Jordan ruling fallout

The federal government will convene a meeting of Canada's justice ministers later this month to discuss how to deal with fallout caused by last year's controversial Supreme Court ruling aimed at limiting trial delays.

Federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould announced the meeting on Monday. She was being pressured by the Quebec government to do more to help it speed up its justice system.

Quebec's sense of urgency was provoked by the decision of a Superior Court judge last week to stay second-degree murder charges laid against Sivaloganathan Thanabalasingam in 2012 because his case had taken too long to come to trial.

Last year, in its so-called Jordan ruling, the Supreme Court set strict limits on trial delays — 18 months for cases waiting to be heard in lower courts and 30 months for Superior Court cases.

That has allowed dozens of suspects across the country to walk free without standing trial.

Wilson-Raybould insisted on Monday that the onus remains with the provinces to end trial delays, given that most criminal cases fall within their jurisdiction. 

She did, however, commit to holding a meeting in late April to help co-ordinate solutions.

"I'm happy to say that we're having a federal-provincial-territorial meeting at the end of April, where we're specifically going to talk about Jordan," she told reporters in Ottawa.   

"There's no one solution to court delays, and we're going to make sure that we do everything we can to co-ordinate in terms of the delays."  

Pressure mounts on Ottawa

Quebec's justice minister, Stéphanie Vallée, said the province has done what it can to unclog its courts — appointing 16 new Quebec court judges, hiring 52 new prosecutors and hundreds more support staff.

More judges, prosecutors hired to reduce delays in Quebec's justice system

Quebec maintains delays in the upper courts — which hear more serious crimes, such as murder — are Ottawa's responsibility. Vallée accused the federal government of dragging its heels on filling 14 judicial vacancies on Quebec's Superior Court.  

"We've been waiting for these positions to be filled for quite a long time," she told CBC Montreal Daybreak on Monday. 

​Along with the pressure from Quebec, the Liberal government is also facing criticism from the opposition in Ottawa to move ahead with the appointments. 

"Why is it that the government isn't moving more quickly to name judges?" asked Luc Berthold, Conservative MP for the Quebec riding of Mégantic—L'Érable.

"We've been repeating this request for months in the House of Commons. It doesn't seem to be a priority for the minister." 

On Monday, though, Wilson-Raybould only mentioned six vacancies on Quebec's Superior Court. She refused to provide a specific timeline for the nominations and downplayed what effect the unfilled positions have.  

"Appointing six judges in Quebec is not going to solve the delay problems," she said. 

Couillard's 'nuclear option' and other solutions

The ruling in the Thanabalasingam case has contributed to a sense of crisis in Quebec about the strain courts are facing dealing with Jordan. 

There are almost 800 requests for stays currently before Quebec courts, and that accumulation of requests has only taxed the justice system further. 

Quebec's Opposition, the Parti Québécois, has proposed the Quebec government invoke the notwithstanding clause to bypass the time limits set by the Supreme Court.

Invoking the clause would entail the provincial legislature passing a law that would override section 11b of the Charter, which holds that anyone accused of a crime "be tried within a reasonable time."

Over the weekend, Premier Philippe Couillard described that as the "nuclear option" and said the province hoped to make headway with Ottawa first.

Wilson-Raybould said Monday she also wasn't a "big fan" of invoking the notwithstanding clause. 

Other provinces have been experimenting with less dramatic ways of cutting trial delays. Since 2014, for instance, Alberta has recommended preliminary hearings only be held in the most serious cases.

It's an approach that has found favour among members of a Senate committee studying the court system.

"We think there are areas where preliminary inquiries are not necessary," Conservative Senator Bob Runciman told CBC recently.

Among other proposals for clearing backlogs in the justice system are revisiting some mandatory minimum sentences and encouraging judges to deliver more oral judgments.