11/24/2011 06:58 EST | Updated 01/24/2012 05:12 EST

Chief Justice Robert Bauman: B.C. Justice System 'In Peril'

VANCOUVER - B.C.'s justice system is "threatened, if not in peril," says the chief justice of the B.C. Supreme Court, who calls on lawyers to help educate the public on the importance of the institution.

Chief Justice Robert Bauman delivered a blunt speech to the B.C. branch of the Canadian Bar Association last weekend saying government underfunding has left the courts close to dysfunctional.

"Our judicial system is one of the best in the world. But it is threatened, if not in peril," Bauman said in the opening sentence of his speech.

"The stability and integrity of our courts and judicial system are being slowly eroded by a lack of funding."

Bauman said the financial crisis that has led to charges — some of them serious — being tossed out of court due to unreasonable delays at the provincial court level is now seeping into the Supreme Court level, where more serious charges are tried.

Bauman recited part of the decision of a provincial court judge earlier this year who wrote that "the fact that an unrepentant drug dealer who has been convicted of possession of cocaine for the purpose of trafficking. . . should now be free of the consequences of this very serious offence. . . should alarm and concern the community."

The court concluded there had been a 42-month delay in bringing the case to trial and half of it was attributed to lack of resources.

But Bauman said there are "more benign symptom of the breakdown."

He noted that cuts to the number of court clerks means fewer matters can be heard. Fewer registry staff means in some places, there are up to six-month delays in processing court orders.

Cuts to support programs within the justice system are leading to hardships for those who cannot afford a lawyer, especially in child custody cases.

And a decision last spring to cut the number of sheriffs in courtrooms means trials were delayed because judges refused to hear the cases if a sheriff was not present. The cuts were reconsidered.

Bauman said the public is loathe to see government cut funding for health and education.

He called on lawyers to ensure the public understands that the justice system is an even more important pillar of Canadian society.

"That may sound sacrilegious — more important than education and health care? Yes. . . The judicial system, as a branch of government, is a foundational institutional in our democracy."

NDP Leader Adrian Dix pointed the speech out in the legislature during question period Thursday and called on the provincial government to take immediate action to improve things.

Attorney General Shirley Bond said the government has added 14 judges in the last two years and continues to look for ways to divert some proceedings, like drunk driving offences, out of the courts.