TORONTO - A court system stretched to the limits is undermining the right of some accused to a speedy trial, Ontario's top court said Wednesday.
In upholding the conviction of a corrupt public health inspector, the Ontario Court of Appeal took aim at the delays that could have resulted in a stay of proceedings — as has happened in dozens of other cases across Canada.
"It is troubling that 30 years after proclamation of the right to a speedy trial, that right remains precarious in some jurisdictions," the court said.
The appeal was brought by Kerry Wong, a Toronto health inspector, who was convicted in January 2010 of trying to extort $1,400 from a couple who owned a bar.
Then 44, Wong was initially charged in July 2007, but his trial only began in November 2009.
A month before his trial, he sought a stay of proceedings on the grounds that the length of time the case took to be heard had violated his constitutional rights to a speedy hearing.
Wong, who was fired from his $65,000-a-year job, argued among other things that he had suffered mental and physical ailments related to the stress of awaiting the outcome of the proceedings.
In dismissing the stay application, Ontario Superior Court Justice Gary Trotter found that the overall delay was not unreasonable, and the prejudice Wong had suffered as a result was insignificant.
Trotter noted that part of the delay had been caused by an inability to finish the complex preliminary inquiry in the Ontario court of justice on time.
"It is a regrettable feature of life in the Ontario court of justice that, despite reserving blocks of time exclusively for specific cases, other court business inevitably finds its way onto the court's dockets on these days ... (and) this results in the fragmentation and delay of proceedings." Trotter said in his written decision.
"This regular occurrence diminishes the quality of justice and causes frustration for the judiciary, counsel, witnesses and, most importantly, accused persons."
In its ruling, the Appeal Court sided with Trotter's analysis of the delay, but also found it necessary to take up his lament at the inability of the Ontario court of justice to deal expeditiously with the case.
"It was this very limited capacity in the Ontario court of justice to accommodate a two-day preliminary inquiry that posed the greatest challenge to the system," the top court found.
"It was only because the overall delay in both the Ontario court and the Superior Court of Justice was not unreasonable that this case was not stayed."
While Wong's conviction stands, courts across the country have stayed scores of proceedings in cases involving child sex abuse, Hells Angels, various driving offences and weapons charges, among others.
In many of the cases, lack of funding for adequate court resources has been blamed.