Justice Minister vows to consult on preliminary hearing changes

Justice Minister vows to consult on preliminary hearing changes

Saskatchewan Justice Minister Gordon Wyant is promising to consult widely before making any changes to the practice of preliminary hearings.

"We're certainly interested in having a dialogue about it," Wyant told reporters Wednesday.

In an email to CBC News, an official said the Justice Ministry wants to eliminate preliminary hearings for any cases with potential prison sentences under 14 years. Rare exceptions would be permitted, but it would result in an estimated 40 per cent decrease in their use, said the email.

"The Ministry is always looking for ways to increase the effectiveness of the court system," stated the email.

Saskatchewan officials intend to raise the issue when they meet with federal officials Wednesday and Thursday.

Saskatchewan Court of Queen's Bench Chief Justice Martel Popescul said any changes should be approached with caution.

Popescul said he hasn't spoken with any Ministry of Justice officials about the issue. He expected they would have consulted widely with stakeholders before taking any new positions.

"The key is the rule of law and fundamental justice for all," Popescul said in an interview. "We have to be careful."

On Wednesday, Wyant said he'll seek input from Popescul and others "to talk about what options there are … I do want to explore the issue."

Wyant appeared to take exception to his ministry's email that estimated a 40 per cent decrease in the use of preliminary hearings.

"We're not convinced with those numbers," he said.

Ontario and Manitoba's judges and justice ministers have asked the federal government for permission to axe preliminary hearings altogether, at least temporarily. They cited the excessive cost and time required to hold what some call a "dress rehearsal" for the actual trial.

The recent Jordan case at the Supreme Court of Canada set time limits for serious criminal cases. From the time of charges to verdict in provincial court, the time limit is 18 months. In Queen's Bench and other superior courts, the time limit is 30 months.

Other provinces have seen serious cases thrown out of court because of excessive delays.

Critics of preliminary hearings say they almost always result in the accused being committed to trial. They also say witnesses and family members of both victims and the accused are traumatized needlessly.

Popescul said Saskatchewan doesn't face the backlog of cases seen elsewhere.

"I do not believe it's a significant concern in Saskatchewan," he said.

"We are managing the Jordan-type delays in a reasonable fashion, and thus far, we are in relatively good shape."

Popescul said Saskatchewan has an extremely "robust" pre-trial process which is beneficial for everyone. That includes preliminary hearings.

Popescul and others in Saskatchewan say preliminary hearings help the Crown and defence to evaluate the quality of evidence. They also prepare witnesses for the courtroom setting of the potential trial.

"It is a critical step in the criminal justice system," said Scott Spencer, who represented Gerald Stanley in a North Battleford preliminary hearing earlier this month. Stanley is accused of murdering Red Pheasant Cree Nation man Colten Boushie.

Spencer said the system can always be improved, but eliminating preliminary hearings for serious cases goes too far.

Stanley has been committed to stand trial. No date has been set.

North Battleford lawyer Eleanore Sunchild also defended preliminary hearings.

She said a "run-through" can be effective in evaluating the merits of the case. Trauma to witnesses can be minimized if they're adequately educated and briefed.

The Justice Ministry official agreed Saskatchewan is not as swamped as other provinces, but that doesn't mean the status quo should continue.

"Preliminary hearing reform is a viable way of addressing delays in the court system," stated the email.

Clarification : A previous version of this story and its headline said the Ministry of Justice wants to decrease preliminary hearings by 40 per cent. In fact, the ministry wants to limit preliminary hearings to only the most serious cases. It estimates this will lead to a 40 per cent reduction in those hearings.(Apr 26, 2017 1:58 PM)