Court wait times decline

But critics say drop comes at cost of justice
Aurora Banner, December 09. 2010

The average time it took to deal with a criminal case at the Newmarket courthouse dropped last year to levels not seen in several years.

While critics suggest the drop is the result of bargaining away cases to demonstrate results for a court efficiency project launched in 2008, one legal expert said it is “senseless” to fully prosecute every case.

Newmarket, as well as courthouses in Toronto’s north end and London, ON, were chosen as sites to launch the court efficiency program, called Justice on Target, which aims for a 30-per-cent reduction by 2012 across the province in the number of days and court appearances needed to complete a case.

A York Region Media Group analysis of the time required to deal with criminal cases in Newmarket specifically came on the heels of a report this week by the Ontario Auditor General Jim McCarter that said no significant progress has been made in Ontario since Justice on Target was launched.

However, according to data from the Ministry of the Attorney General, it took an average of 202 days to resolve a case at the Newmarket courthouse in 2009 (the last year for which full-year data is available), the fewest since 2007.

Meanwhile it took an average of 8.2 court appearances to finish a case in Newmarket, the fewest since 2004 and a 12-per-cent drop since 2008, when Justice on Target began.

There were 31,747 criminal charges received at the Newmarket courthouse in 2009, more than in any year in the past decade, ministry data shows.

The indication from the Justice on Target sites is the approach works, Attorney General Chris Bentley said in an interview yesterday.

Charges for offences, including assault, impaired driving, uttering death threats and drug trafficking, have dropped during the past two years at the Newmarket courthouse after judges ruled delays violated the rights of accused people to be tried in a reasonable amount of time.

But Newmarket-Aurora MPP Frank Klees said he has been told by Newmarket criminal lawyers that whatever gains are being made at the local courthouse are the result of plea bargains.

And that needs scrutiny, he said, questioning if people are not being held to account in the name of demonstrating efficiencies.

He stressed he is not calling into question the integrity of Crown prosecutors assigned to the cases.

“What I’m being told is there is a rush here to ensure these caseloads are dealt with,” Mr. Klees said.

Mr. Bentley, who said only a small percentage of cases end up going to a full trial, rejected the idea plea bargains are being made in the interest of simply showing Justice on Target works.

“The direction is no cutting corners,” he said. “No resolutions you wouldn’t otherwise make.”

Criminal lawyer Edward Prutschi said Newmarket, which serves all of York Region, has done a better job than most jurisdictions in addressing its backlog.

He said he would agree the success of Justice on Target is tied to plea bargaining, but wouldn’t call that a criticism.

“Intelligent allocation of scarce judicial resources has got to be at the forefront of a fair and efficient system,” Mr. Prutschi said. “It is both impossible and senseless to prosecute every single case to the fullest extent of the law.”

Courthouses should place senior Crowns at the forefront of case screening with a mandate to make “generous offers where appropriate”, he said, adding that would free up resources to strongly prosecute the most serious offences.

Trying to fix the backlog of criminal court cases across the province has been similar to “stopping and turning an iceberg around”, Mr. Bentley admitted.

He stressed what the ministry has asked for is an honest, accurate assessment of cases.

“It’s not about the stats, it’s about the better use of resources,” he said.

Mr. Bentley acknowledged while his office wants a 30-per-cent reduction in the provincial average for court case wait times by 2012, some individual courthouses will exceed the average and some won’t.

But, Mr. Klees said he believes the province is under-funding justice infrastructure and takes no comfort from the slight statistical declines.

“There’s a great gap in the intended outcome and outcome itself,” he said.

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