BC Justice Reform, Minister Makes No New Funding Promises

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SHIRLEY BOND
B.C. Justice Minister Shirley Bond released a report Monday that concluded a "culture of delay" is to blame for unacceptable court delays. (Handout) | Handout

VANCOUVER - British Columbia's justice minister released a plan Monday designed to reduce the backlogs in the province's sluggish courts — a feat she suggested won't necessarily require more money or new judges.

Justice Minister Shirley Bond outlined the first phase of the province's plan to reform its justice system, nearly two months after a government-ordered review concluded a "culture of delay" has contributed to an unacceptable backlog within the courts.

Bond identified 10 steps, some that will happen immediately and others that will take a year or more to complete, all designed to make the courts more efficient, more transparent and ultimately faster.

They include a new Justice and Public Safety Council to guide reforms, an increased focus on technology, and detailed tracking of the system's performance.

They do not, however, include specific commitments for new funding or additional judges — two things opposition politicians, lawyers and even sitting judges have said are desperately needed.

"The first answer to every problem is, 'Let's just put more money into the system and it'll get better,'" Bond told an audience of law school students in Kamloops as she released her plan.

"It may be that new resources are needed. But don't you think that, first of all, we should ... figure out if we're using the billion dollars that we invest today appropriately and efficiently?"

The plan 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.

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.

Bond's newly release plan includes many of Cowper's recommendations.

The new council will oversee reforms, create a yearly justice and public safety plan, hold a yearly justice summit, and establish detailed performance tracking.

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.

While Cowper's report rejected a suggestion by the provincial court that 18 additional judges were needed, he did call for the appointment of five new judges to immediately to alleviate the backlog — a recommendation absent from the plan released Monday.

Cowper, who saw the government's plan for the first time when it was released Monday afternoon, said in an interview that he liked what he saw.

"It seems to me they've taken my report very seriously, and it seems that they've adopted and declared as government policy the structural changes I recommended," said Cowper.

Cowper predicted the changes outlined by the government will help fix the broken "culture of delay" he identified in his report.

"Cultural change is not something that comes about as a result of just wishing it," said Cowper.

"You have to essentially change the system, and I think where this is going is that everybody within the system will understand there are goals and we will be transparent to the public. And that's what will eventually change the culture."

A growing backlog in the province's courts fuelled a debate over resources within the system.

Dozens of court cases were thrown out because of the delay and more than 2,500 cases have been open for at least 14 months.

The Opposition New Democrats have seized on the problems within the justice system to criticize the Liberal government ahead of next May's provincial election.

NDP critic Leonard Krog blamed the Liberals for all that ails the justice system and suggested they can't be trusted to fix it after more than a decade in power.

Krog complained there were not enough specifics in Monday's plan and he argued any meaningful change will require additional resources.

"I have a real concern that a lot of this is window dressing — what does all this actually mean in terms of getting people through the justice system?" Krog said in an interview.

"And to suggest that it's not going to require some more money over time is just very wishful thinking on the government's part."

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 many of the same problems.

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