OTTAWA – The Supreme Court of Canada, citing a “culture of complacency” in the justice system, has set out a new framework for determining whether a criminal trial has been unreasonably delayed.
In a potentially groundbreaking 5-4 decision Friday, the high court said the old means of determining whether a person’s constitutional right to a timely trial had been infringed was too complex and unpredictable.
The Charter of Rights and Freedoms says someone charged with an offence has the right to be tried within a reasonable time.
Under the new framework, an unreasonable delay would be presumed should proceedings – from the criminal charge to conclusion of a trial – exceed 18 months in provincial court, or 30 months in a superior court.
However, these benchmarks are not set in stone.
The Crown could challenge the notion that a delay is unreasonable by showing there were “exceptional circumstances,” a majority of the court said in its reasons.
These circumstances could include something unforeseen and beyond the Crown’s control, such as a sudden illness, or a case requiring extradition of an accused from another country. They might also arise in “particularly complex” cases that involve disclosure of many documents, a large number of witnesses or a significant need for expert evidence.
The Supreme Court said that as a transitional measure for cases already in the system, the new framework must be applied “flexibly and contextually.”
The right to be tried within a reasonable time is central to the administration of Canada’s criminal justice system, the high court said.
“An unreasonable delay denies justice to the accused, victims and their families, and the public as a whole.”
However, unnecessary procedures and adjournments, inefficient practices and inadequate institutional resources have been “accepted as the norm and give rise to ever-increasing delay,” the ruling said.
The old framework failed to address this “culture of complacency,” and participants in the justice system – police, Crown counsel, defence lawyers, courts, provincial legislatures and Parliament – were not encouraged to “take preventative measures to address inefficient practices and resourcing problems,” the court said.
The Supreme Court made the ruling in deciding that the British Columbia drug convictions of Barrett Richard Jordan must be set aside due to an unreasonable delay.
In a dissenting opinion, a minority of the court agreed the charges against Jordan should be stayed, but called the new framework for gauging delays unwarranted and unwise, saying it could lead to thousands of prosecutions being tossed out.