Ontario has announced the biggest expansion of its criminal-justice system in more than two decades, two weeks after a judge scrapped a first-degree-murder charge because the accused had spent four years in jail waiting for his trial to be completed.
The expansion is an attempt to meet new Supreme Court deadlines for timely trials. Ontario Attorney-General Yasir Naqvi said on Thursday the province’s criminal courts are “bottle-necked” and there is no “sugar-coating” the challenge facing them.
The government will add 13 judges, 32 prosecutors, 16 duty counsel serving accused people and 26 court staff. It also announced several measures aimed at improving its bail system and ensuring low-risk people do not languish behind bars until their trial is completed. The price for the expansion and bail changes is $25-million a year.
The last time additional prosecutors were hired for courtroom work was for a guns and gangs unit in 2007; a few new prosecutors were also brought in for regional projects such as one for combatting sexual violence, said Kate Matthews, president of the Ontario Crown Attorneys Association. Apart from those examples, “we have not had a single extra trial Crown in Ontario for more than 15 years. Last year, we were concerned about how we would stave off lay-offs. There was a palpable feeling of despair amongst prosecutors.”
The previous major infusion of prosecutors was in 1990, after a Supreme Court ruling in a case known as R. v Askov caused thousands of criminal charges to be thrown out for unreasonable delay, she said. The court set timelines, but then made them flexible and delays grew again.
Last month, an Ottawa judge stayed a murder charge against Adam Picard in the shooting death of 28-year-old construction worker Fouad Nayel. Proceedings had lasted nearly four years and the judge said the delay violated the defendant’s right to timely justice.
A month earlier, an Alberta judge threw out a charge of first-degree murder over a five-year delay. Alberta has not added new judges or prosecutors since that ruling, although it created 10 new spots for judges on its superior courts – which the federal government has to fill. Ottawa has not yet done so.
Alberta’s prosecution service has begun a “triage” process to give priority to cases of serious violence. The province has also expanded legal-aid funding.
In July, the Supreme Court of Canada, in a case called R v. Jordan, set time limits of 18 months in provincial court and 30 months in superior court, from charge to completion, except in exceptional circumstances. While they do not directly apply to cases already in the system, they have rung alarm bells throughout the country; in jurisdictions such as Nova Scotia, homicide cases routinely take longer than 30 months. The Supreme Court’s majority said its previous flexible guidelines led to a “culture of complacency.”
Rick Woodburn, president of the Canadian Association of Crown Counsel, said he hopes other provinces will follow Ontario’s lead. Newfoundland and Labrador has added three prosecutors, he said. “Hopefully, it will catch on across the country,” the Halifax-based prosecutor said in an interview.
The Ontario government said it will expand its bail verification and supervision program to the entire province. The program aims at supporting low-risk individuals who may not have anyone in the community to supervise them. Currently, it operates in about half of the province.
Anthony Moustacalis, president of the Criminal Lawyers Association, praised the bail changes as a “very helpful step in moving on what has been a three- or four-year project to reduce the number of people in pretrial custody.”
The government also said it will set up a supervised housing program for low-risk individuals in five Ontario communities, make duty counsel available for bail hearings at six correctional facilities and create special supports for indigenous people in the bail and remand process. Mr. Naqvi also appointed former chief justice Brian Lennox, former deputy attorney-general Murray Segal and deputy Crown attorney Lori Montague to advise him on further bail improvements.
Across Canada, more people in provincial jails are waiting for trial than have been convicted.
The government will “embed” Crown attorneys at two police stations, including Toronto’s downtown 51 division, beginning next month.