VANCOUVER - A "culture of delay" within British Columbia's justice system encourages defence lawyers, Crown prosecutors and even judges to act in ways that contribute to unacceptable backlogs in the courts, concludes a government-ordered review that calls for sweeping change at nearly every step of the process.
Lawyer Geoffrey Cowper, appointed in February to examine why so many cases take months or years to make their way through the courts, released a report Thursday that proposes a range of measures to reduce court delays. But he was adamant such change is possible without significantly increasing spending or hiring a bevy of new judges, notably rejecting the provincial court's request for 18 new judicial appointments.
Instead, Cowper suggested court backlogs are the work of a legal culture that encourages delays and resists change. A speedy justice system has traditionally been seen as a convenience rather than a requirement, he said.
"Timeliness needs to be recognized as a necessity — the culture of delay that has existed for too long must be replaced by a culture of timeliness," Cowper told a news conference as he released his 270-page report.
"The change in culture has to be to take a different view entirely of the role of timeliness," he continued. "In the past, we've looked at it as something that would be nice to have, but, quite frankly, something that's not necessary."
The debate over court resources boiled over last year in the face of what lawyers and judges lamented were lengthy delays.
In 2011, more than 100 cases were stayed because of court delays, and when Cowper began his review, there were roughly 2,500 cases before provincial court that had been there for more than 18 months.
At least two judges used decisions from the bench to criticize the provincial government for underfunding the justice system, particularly when it came to the number of judges currently sitting.
Cowper noted there has been a reduction in that backlog recently, but he said the system is currently not meeting the expectations of victims, suspects or the public in resolving cases in a timely manner.
"We have to move to measures that happen in respect of days and weeks of time, not months and years of time," he said.
A significant problem, said Cowper, is a system that operates on the assumption that every case is destined for trial, when in fact 98 per cent of cases in provincial court are resolved without a trial.
Despite that reality, he said neither the defence nor the Crown are encouraged to work early in the process towards reasonable pleas or sentences, resulting in courts that are poorly utilized as cases that are scheduled for trial are cancelled at the last minute.
One way to address that, he said, is to ensure individual Crown prosecutors are assigned to take "ownership" over files from the outset. Legal aid lawyers should be assigned to particular court locations so they deal with the same offenders, he said, which will require an increase to legal aid funding.
Such a change, said Cowper, would require a prosecutor to make a reasonable offer on sentencing early in a case. That would discourage an accused person from waiting until the first day of trial in the hopes that he or she may receive a lighter sentence for a guilty plea or that no-shows among witnesses would jeopardize the case, he says.
The report doesn't make any recommendations about the level of funding for the justice system, and rejects the provincial court's request for 18 new judges.
Instead, Cowper said five new judges should be appointed to immediately deal with the current backlog, and he argued other reforms designed to use court time more efficiently will make significant increases in judicial appointments unnecessary.
Justice Minister Shirley Bond said she only had the report for a few days and was still digesting its contents. She did not say whether the government is prepared to hire five judges, as Cowper recommended.
Bond agreed the system isn't performing as it should, though she was quick to embrace Cowper's suggestion that change need not be expensive.
"The first answer to solving problems isn't writing a cheque, and I think the report actually upholds that view," Bond told reporters.
"Absolutely, we will be focusing on timeliness, and I agree with Geoff that that certainly is the common theme through all of the reports and feedback we've received."
Bond said her government will release a report later in the fall that will detail a plan to address Cowper's recommendations. A second paper will be prepared following the report from the inquiry into the Robert Pickton case, due in October, and the results of an ongoing review of the province's policing system.
Cowper suggested the current problems plaguing the justice system have been present for some time.
He noted previous reviews have identified similar problems but failed to prompt significant change. Cowper borrowed the phrase "culture of delay" from a report written in 1998 by Robert Metzger, then chief judge of the provincial court, that identified many of the same concerns.
Still, the Opposition New Democrats, who were in power in Metzger's days, were quick to seize on the Cowper report as proof the Liberals had broken the system.
"You never saw the judiciary comment in the numbers of cases that they have, nor the chief judge of the provincial court, nor the chief justice of British Columbia comment the way he has about problems in the criminal justice and the court system," Leonard Krog, the NDP's critic for the attorney general, said in an interview.
"All of those things indicate to me that there may have been issues, as there always are in any system under any government, but when this elevated from being a manageable issue to a serious problem has happened under their (the Liberal party's) watch."