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Clogged courtroom crisis 'over-blown' says BC Liberal candidate

The "crisis" in the growing backlogs reported in B.C. courtrooms is threatening public safety — and nowhere are delays worse than in Chilliwack.

That's what NDP and BC Conservative candidates in the Chilliwack-Hope byelection are saying.

But BC Liberal candidate Laurie Throness said the problem is being "over-blown" by the his political opponents.

He agreed the 109 judicial stays reported due to trial delays is "distressing ... but it's 109 out of thousands of cases heard."

"We don't want to over-blow the problem, but we want to get to the bottom of it," he said.

And the BC Liberal government is already reviewing the problem with a "Green Paper" study that started last August, Throness said.

"I think that's a reasonable approach ... and, remember, we don't have a lot of money to throw around."

Chief provincial court judge Thomas Crabtree, speaking after a Rotary Club meeting Friday in Chilliwack, refused to be drawn into the political fray.

But he made it clear he's been urgently "pressing the point" about growing trial delays with government officials for nearly two years.

"When I took office in April, 2010, I was desperately concerned about the time it was taking for matters to get to trial," he said in his Rotary speech.

"My mantra over the last 18 months has been to impress upon (the government) the need for more judicial resources," he said.

Currently, there are about 121 provincial court judges in B.C., and nine more recently appointed, but that still does not bring the system back up to the 143 judges in December, 2005.

"That's what we say (the number) ought to be," Crabtree said.

But it's not just the lack of judges that is causing trial delays of more than 18-months, which puts them in the range where judges are obliged by law to consider defense applications to drop the charges.

Court delays can therefore benefit criminals, Crabtree agreed, "but the child who is apprehended doesn't benefit. The family who is separated and can't resolve (their differences) ... these litigants don't have a remedy," he said.

According to a September, 2011 update to the Justice Delayed report initiated by Crabtree, Chilliwack was tied with Surrey for the longest wait of 16 months for a criminal trial.

But Chilliwack took top spot for the longest delays for child protection hearings — up to 14 months for a half-day trial — and the city tied with Terrace for the longest delay for family matters with a wait of more than 16 months for a half-day trial.

"That's unacceptable," NDP candidate Gwen O'Mahony said.

She said at least one "potential" pedophile has walked because of trial delays, and in Chilliwack a convicted impaired driver was released after a 51-month delay.

"We're talking about a very real safety issue in our community, right in our own backyard," O'Mahony said. "They've got to hire more judges."

But B.C. Conservative candidate John Martin, a criminology professor at UFV, said he isn't sure hiring more judges is the only remedy because there are other underlying reasons for the court backlogs.

The BC Liberals shut down about two dozen courthouses when they formed government, he said, which has resulted in the need for police officers testifying in criminal trials to travel longer distances, something their supervisors are reluctant to approve.

That kind of delay in hearing evidence can force court hearings to be postponed repeatedly, adding to the wait times for trials, he said.

The BC Liberals also cut legal aid funding, which has led to more accused showing up at court hearings without legal representation.

"These guys show up without a lawyer, and the judge will not proceed," he said.

Martin chastised the BC Liberals for wasting taxpayers' money on "frivolous vanity projects" like employee recognition programs and rewarding buyers of hybrid vehicles.

"Right now, we just can't afford those kinds of frills when you're short of money in the courtroom ... when you're short of judges, hospital staff and teachers," he said.

"We're in a crisis situation, and you've got to do something quick," he said.

If the public loses confidence in the justice system, he added, "that's a very frightening scenario."

"People need to be held accountable for their actions ... and that requires a system that's capable of responding to wrong-doing," he said.

And right now, Crabtree said B.C.'s system "isn't capable of providing timely access to justice."

And that's something that should concern the whole community, not just those involved as victims or as accused.

"Our whole notion of community is built on the rule and order of law, and part of that is we expect to have matters heard in a timely way," he said.

The next update of the Justice Delayed report is expected in March.

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