10/22/2012 08:48 EDT | Updated 12/22/2012 05:12 EST

B.C. court backlog prompts new justice plan

Changes are coming to B.C.’s justice system with a new council to oversee reform and end a backlog at the courts, but it may not mean new funding for judges.

Justice Minister Shirley Bond released a document Monday that outlines a 10-point plan for the justice system, nearly two months after a government-ordered review concluded a "culture of delay" has contributed to unacceptable backlogs within the courts.

The document stresses the need to change the way the courts are run — increasing the use of technology, implementing a more sophisticated scheduling system and developing ways to measure performance — but makes no specific commitments on additional funding or new judges.

"Despite a declining crime rate and $1 billion in annual funding, our justice system is not seeing the outcomes that British Columbians deserve," Bond said in a statement included in the report.

The plan includes the creation of a Justice and Public Safety Council, which will oversee reforms, create a yearly justice and public safety plan, hold a yearly justice summit, and establish methods to measure performance.

The province will draft a technology strategy that will increase electronic filing and speed up communication between Crown and defence, and it will work with the provincial court to develop a new scheduling system to ensure court resources are being used efficiently.

The province will also work with the judiciary to determine how many judges are required within the system, though the plan does not specifically commit to any additional judges.

"The system must become faster at what it does," says the report. "And it must be balanced, weighing resources against risk and public interest."

The document is a response to a report authored by lawyer Geoffrey Cowper, who was appointed earlier this year to review the justice system amid concerns over persistent delays.

Thousands of cases waiting

Cowper concluded court backlogs were the work of a legal culture that encourages delays and resists change, and he dismissed the suggestion that simply spending more money would fix the problem.

While Cowper rejected the provincial court's call for 18 additional judges, he did say five new judges were needed immediately to alleviate the backlog.

The government's plan does not make any comments on Cowper's call for five judges.

A growing backlog in the province's courts has fuelled a debate over resources within the system, with more than 2,500 cases that have been open for at least 14 months, including dozens that have been thrown out because of those delays.

Opposition politicians, lawyers and even sitting judges have criticized the provincial government for the state of the justice system and have called for more funding at nearly every level.

Monday's plan is the first of two such reports.

The second is expected to be released in the new year, after the government has received the final report from the Robert Pickton inquiry and a report from an ongoing review of policing in the province.

That second report is expected to focus, in part, on providing early assistance to citizens who find themselves involved in the justice system and encouraging alternatives for resolving cases.

Bond has promised the current series of reviews won't meet the same fate as previous examinations of the justice system, which have failed to prompt substantial change.

Cowper borrowed the phrase "culture of delay" from a similar report written in 1998, and there have been other reviews conducted before and since that have identified the same problems.