Courts at breaking point; drunk-driving cases tossed
Bethany Lindsay, ctvbc.ca
Published Thursday, November 25, 2010 9:16PM PST
Courts in B.C.'s second biggest city are so overloaded that even a single adjournment could end with charges being dropped against accused criminals, a provincial court judge says.
On Monday, Surrey Judge Peder Gulbransen issued his reasons for tossing out two impaired driving cases because they took too long to get to trial.
In a strongly worded decision, the judge says the court backlog has built up gradually, and is only now having an impact.
"Now the backlog is so great and the courts so crowded, that in many cases there will be an unreasonable delay should there be even one adjournment on a trial date," Gulbransen said.
The number of criminal cases coming into the Surrey court system has not increased significantly in the last five years, he writes. Instead, the problem is a gradual decrease in the provincial government's budget for courts.
"Courts cannot be exempt from spending cuts or restrictions which governments must make in response to economic downturns or crises," the judge acknowledged.
"But there are limits on how far institutional resources in the justice system can be cut or allowed to deteriorate, without attracting serious consequences."
Gulbransen says that the court doesn't have enough judges, sheriffs or court personnel to keep up with the incoming caseload.
"In Surrey, it is not uncommon for there to be days when there are not enough clerks to staff the courtrooms," he wrote.
In one of the two decisions issued this week, Gulbransen says that Konrad Moskal had to wait two years and eight months from the time he was charged with impaired driving until his trial date. Twenty-five months of that delay was directly caused by the court backlog.
That wait is almost three times the allowable institutional delay of eight to 10 months.
Rene Darl Matson would have waited 18 months before her impaired driving charge reached the trial stage.
"It would have taken no more than a day to complete the trial," Gulbransen said of Matson's case. "The sole reason for the delay was that there was a backlog in the trial calendar."
‘Troubling' delays across the province
Attorney General Michael de Jong has called similar examples in B.C.'s provincial courts "troubling."
But they aren't that uncommon.
Earlier this month, drunk-driving charges were stayed against RCMP officer Kulwant Singh Malhi because the case took too long to get to trial.
In May, two cocaine-trafficking cases were thrown out of court in Cranbrook because of lengthy delays -- one man had waited three years to see his case go to trial.
The growing backlog has been blamed on a lack of judges -- the number of provincial court justices dropped to 124.5 this year, down from 143 five years ago.
To address the problem, De Jong appointed five new judges to the provincial court system in September. None of those were assigned to Surrey.