Daniel Steinberg, B.C. Judge: State Of Provincial Courts 'Abysmal'

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VANCOUVER - Four more suspected criminals — including an accused Internet child predator and an alleged drunk driver — have escaped convictions because of the bloated caseload of British Columbia's courts, prompting one judge to issue a direct attack on Premier Christy Clark and her government's handling of the matter.

In one ruling out of New Westminster, B.C., Judge Daniel Steinberg called the current state of the provincial court in B.C. "abysmal."

"There are no amount of press releases or talk show appearances that are going to fix the over-stretched limits of our institutional resources," Steinberg said in a ruling posted Wednesday on the provincial court website.

"There is only one course of action that will fix the current situation and that is action, not words."

Clark, a former radio talk show host, appeared on her old station's airwaves Monday to discuss her government's priorities, including the conundrum in the justice system. Steinberg's decision is dated Jan. 25 and was posted Wednesday on the provincial court website.

Last week, Clark promised a complete review of the court system to discover why delays and costs are increasing while crime goes down.

Suggested solutions for the problem are at least five months away as lawyer Geoffrey Cowper investigates the problem. But in the meantime, hundreds of cases may be timing out of the system.

Steinberg stayed charges against David Blattler — who was accused of attempting to lure an underage teenager over the Internet —because he'd waited 27 months for his case to get to trial.

"I find that the consequences of the government's decision-making and priority-setting have meant the creation in this case, as in many others, of an intolerable delay that offends the ...charter," he concluded.

"It offends the very real need ... to suppress predatory behaviour on the Internet."

In Chillwack, Judge Wendy Young stayed the case of Wilfred Friesen who was accused of drunk driving because his trial took almost three years to get to court.

And earlier this week in Kelowna, Judge Robin Smith threw out marijuana cultivation charges against Lin To and her brother Quo To because they had waited years to get their day in court.

Smith said the government has a constitutional obligation to provide sufficient resources to prevent unreasonable delays.

"This is a pretty simple, straight-forward case that ought not require 23 months of systemic delays to be heard just because resources aren't available to have it heard earlier."

Smith brushed off the government announcement last week that nine new judges had been appointed, saying it only replaces retiring judges.

Even with the nine new appointments, there are still 14 fewer judges working in the B.C. courts than there were in 2005.

The backlog of cases is still growing.

Statistics show there are almost 7,000 provincial court criminal cases that have been pending for a year or more and over 2,000 cases have been waiting in the system for 18 months.

B.C. New Democrat Leader Adrian Dix said the delays are the direct result of years of inaction by the government.

"It didn't happen overnight," Dix told the legislature. "It's one thing to complain about judges, which is apparently what the government is doing. It's another thing to take the issue seriously and the government hasn't."

Clark said her government is taking real action and that includes the appointment of 23 new judges recently, hiring new sheriffs, more money for legal aid and more money for jail capacity in the Interior.

"That is a substantial investment in a system that needs it," she said. "Because stays and delays are unacceptable for victims, they're unacceptable for society, no one wants the system to work that way."

Cowper's review is expected to look for efficiencies and how to accelerate the court process and is expected to be completed by July.

The provincial government spends about $1.4 billion dollars a year on the justice system.