Quebec's Crown prosecutors' office is asking for criminal cases to be handled on a priority basis so certain types of offences don't fall through the cracks.
From now on, cases involving murder, aggravated assault, sexual and conjugal violence and the mistreatment of children and seniors will be given priority when trial deadlines loom, according to a memo sent out by the Directeur des poursuites criminelles et pénales (DPCP).
The Crown wants to ensure these types of serious offences aren't stayed due to legal delays, it said in a memo sent out last Thursday.
The memo cites the Supreme Court of Canada's Jordan decision which establishes timelines that trials must be heard by once charges are laid.
Criminal defence lawyer Charles Coté says that means other cases will likely have to be dropped due to delays, such as "smaller crimes, petty thefts, mischief, crimes against property that are not of a big value, some financial crimes that do not require as much attention because of the amount of money."
Some non-violent crimes may go unheard
In the memo, the DPCP says "it remains in the public interest that other cases be carried out ultimately for the maintenance of public order, the preservation of public security and confidence the public with regard to the justice system."
Non-violent crimes, such as fraud or drug trafficking, may no longer be a DPCP priority under the new guidelines.
However, according to the memo, files that fall outside the new framework could still be considered priorities depending on the seriousness of the crime in question and the prevalence of this type of file in the region concerned.
For example, a case involving the use or trafficking of firearms, drug trafficking or a form of organized crime within a community struggling with the consequences of such illegal behaviour would remain a priority, the memo says.
In November, the Ministry of Justice said that nearly a third of the 160,000 criminal cases expected in 2023 would be abandoned due to delays.
Montreal's police service, the SPVM, sent out a statement Friday, saying it is "deeply concerned" by the DPCP's new guidelines.
"It has an impact on the victims as well as on the work carried out by the police, the investigators and the prosecutors," the statement says.
Bar president blames lack of funding
Catherine Claveau, president of the Quebec Bar, said this directive is tied to the lack of investment in the justice system.
"Any citizen who is a victim, witness or otherwise involved in a criminal and penal prosecution, even an accused person, has his own file and each file is important for this person," she said.
"All this stems from a major problem which is linked to the underfunding of the justice [system]. There is a lack of judges across the province. There are cases that are piling up and that are causing delays to get longer. It undermines confidence in the justice system."
Chief Justice Lucie Rondeau is calling for 41 additional judges for the Court of Quebec. In the past, the province's justice minister, Simon Jolin-Barrette, replied that the government has already hired 29 additional judges compared to 2016.
But a spokesperson for Jolin-Barette said the problem is not due to a lack of resources. The spokesperson blames the problem on Rondeau's decision to reduce the number of hours that judges hear cases in court.
Since September, the judges of the Court of Quebec sit every other day and deliberate the rest of the time. Previously, they sat two days out of three.
"We have always said that this decision risks having serious consequences on judicial delays and therefore, ultimately, directly on the victims," Jolin-Barette said.
The two sides are working with a former judge to facilitate talks on the matter.