Court delays in Manitoba are causing more cases to be thrown out before an accused even stands trial, and lawyers say it’s a sign that the system isn’t working.
In 2016, the Supreme Court ruled that cases for lesser charges must be heard within 18 months, or 30 months for more serious charges.
Data obtained by CBC News from Manitoba prosecutions show delay motions were filed for 53 cases in the province over the past two years. The Crown stayed 13 of them, and another five were dropped because of lengthy delays, meaning 18 cases were tossed and the accused went free.
“Delay has a corrosive effect across the criminal justice system,” defence lawyer Scott Newman told CBC. “Somebody who says ‘I’m innocent and I want to have my day in court,’ doesn’t get an opportunity to clear their name.”
Among the 18 cases tossed include that of a former Red River College instructor, who had child pornography charges against him dropped.
Newman said the number of cases thrown out every year due to delays is actually much higher, because some get stayed before a motion is even needed.
Witnesses die or move away and their memories fade over time, he said, posing significant risks to the carriage of justice when court delays are commonplace.
“There’s a real interest in getting these cases heard as quickly as possible — both for victims, the accused and for society as a whole,” he said. “And when we have these delay issues, these endemic delays that we’re not necessarily moving forward on, it’s bad for everyone.”
More than 3000 cases took longer than 18 months to be heard by a judge, according to last year’s provincial court annual report, which is an increase of nearly five and a half per cent.
That’s despite fewer cases in the system, the report said, which have taken longer to conclude than in previous years mainly because of suspensions of court proceedings during the pandemic.
Newman said the report also found that 40 per cent of the provincial court’s workload involves the administration of justice offences, which include bail breaches and people moving without court approval.
“We’re clogging the system with these really minor offences, and if we could take that 40 per cent out of the court system and throw it away, we’d have a ton of time.”
Poor internet accessibility has exemplified the problem for those in rural and northern parts of Manitoba, he said, leaving those in Indigenous and northern Manitoba communities particularly vulnerable.
“There simply aren’t enough court dates to deal with the volume of cases there,” said Newman. “I think we are falling down in our efforts at reconciliation if we’re not putting appropriate resources into helping those communities.”
Defence attorney Evan Roitenberg said tossed cases due to delays mean the accused does not get a chance to prove their innocence, and the victims don’t get a chance to see justice play out.
“Justice not only has to be done, it has to be seen to be done and it has to be seen to be done in a timely way,” Roitenberg told CBC.
‘It’s about human beings’
An increase in prosecution and judge vacancies across the province has also contributed to those delays, he said.
The accused are often looked at as guilty if they are let go on a delay motion, said Roitenberg, because they were freed on a technicality. “It’s an unfortunate reality as to how far that pendulum has swung in the 30 years that I’ve been practicing law.”
But he said everyone, no matter their degree of involvement in a case, is affected when they get tossed due to court delays.
“It’s about human beings, not just about time,” said Roitenberg.
“They all have a right to move on at some point, a right to know that this particular chapter of their life is closed — and through that — closure to be able to garner some healing.”