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OPINION: Chilliwack sexual assault victim exasperated by nearly 5-year delay getting to trial

‘There is no statutory or Constitutional punishment on the defence for dragging their feet’ - lawyer
Ruppreet Singh Pawar went on trial in provincial court in Chilliwack on Feb. 23, 2023 facing a charge of sexual assault from July 2018. Pawar has delayed the proceedings numerous times over the four-plus years by firing his lawyer, at least four times. (Facebook photo)

A 36-year-old woman reported a rape by a co-worker to the RCMP back in July 2018.

That woman is now 41 and exasperated at how long it has taken for her case to go to trial and for her alleged attacker to face justice.

The sexual assault trial finally started on Thursday (Feb. 23), nearly five years since the alleged incident and the police report. Another trial date was set for March 2022 but the defendant, Ruppreet Singh Pawar was a no-show. The trial was then postponed nearly a year until this week.

Months ago I spoke to the victim who said she couldn’t believe how many times Pawar was able to delay the proceedings. At that time, his lawyer Amandeep Sidhu was his third.

In court on Thursday, Pawar is onto his fifth (at least) lawyer, Brij Mohan.

“The justice system says the accused has a right to a speedy trial,” the victim told me in an interview months ago. “I agree. But I should also have that same right.”

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With postponements, each time lasting an average of nine months, a delay isn’t just a matter of lost time, it is emotionally stressful, to say the least.

“It just puts my life on hold and it is re-traumatizing because I have to worry about the trial and I have to keep recounting the incident in my head, so that I don’t forget anything when being questioned.”

The victim emphasized that her “complete and utter frustration” with the criminal justice system does not apply to the two different public prosecutors who have been on this file.

“Crown counsel have been great and none of this is their fault.”

I didn’t speak to those Crown lawyers, but I did speak to a number of people inside the criminal justice system who sympathize with the victim’s plight.

“Prosecutors sympathize with your source,” stated one lawyer whom I am not naming. “The courts place a very high value on the defendant enjoying representation. This can impose terrible costs on everyone else in the system.”

Section 11(b) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms “entitles anyone charged with a crime to the right to be heard within a reasonable time.”

Up until 2016, the definition of “reasonable,” as it is throughout the law, was far from concrete. But in the well-known case of R. v. Jordan, the Supreme Court of Canada set hard ceilings on how long a case could be before the courts before the charges would be tossed out. For provincial matters it’s 18 months and for Supreme it’s 30 months, and that is between charges being laid and a trial.

As of this month, Pawar has faced the charges for 55 months. So why doesn’t Jordan apply? It’s because the courts only punish prosecutors, the Crown, for delay. Section 11(b) and the subsequent Jordan decision provides protection only for the defendant’s right to a speedy trial.

“There is no statutory or constitutional punishment on the defence for dragging their feet,” another lawyer told me. “If the defendant is in jail pending trial, then the punishment is that he may remain there for longer. If the defendant is on bail, then the bail binds him for longer.

“At present, only the defendant has a right to a fair trial and only the defendant has a right to a speedy trial.”

Yet another lawyer told me that Crown actually can rely on Jordan as much as defence can. The bottom line is that the defendant cannot keep firing his lawyer indefinitely, but each time he does, he has to request an adjournment.

“It’s up to the judge to grant or deny it. It’s a tough decision for a judge because denying an adjournment to get new counsel could force a self-representation trial, which is difficult for everyone involved especially when the charges are serious and gives the defendant something to argue on appeal.

“But if there is a pattern of adjournments due to new counsel, at some point that needs to end.”

So there is indeed a line beyond which the courts will say “no more delays.” But that line is a blurry one.

Most defendants want to get their charges dealt with and put behind them, but some defendants will happily take the delay.

Delay usually hurts the prosecution. Witnesses forget. Witnesses die. Witnesses move away.

With all that being said, Pawar’s trial did begin on Feb. 23 with the victim taking the witness stand for the entire day and questioned by Crown counsel Aaron Burns. He took her in detail through the events leading up to and through the alleged sexual assault incident.

In an opening statement, Burns outlined the case, which will include the main allegation that the victim was raped by Pawar on the bleachers at Chilliwack Secondary School in the early hours of July 18, 2018.

Then on Friday (Feb. 24), cross examination of the victim by defence was scheduled. At the start of the day, however, the court heard that suddenly Pawar needs a Punjabi interpreter to understand the nuances of the English language being spoken in the courtroom.

Despite working as a registered psychiatric nurse for many years, and going through four-plus years of interviews and pre-trial hearings, one day into his criminal trial Pawar said he needs a translator.

Judge Andrea Ormiston did the only thing she could do without risking future grounds for appeal if he is found guilty. She granted an adjournment to wait for the Punjabi interpreter. The plan was changed to then spend Friday playing back all of the victim’s recorded testimony from Thursday and have it translated for Pawar.

So, while justice in this case is finally getting underway, it looks like a slow slog ahead.

Nearly a year ago, the victim said the delays at that time seemed unacceptable to her. I don’t know how anyone could disagree.

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