05/12/2013 04:37 EDT | Updated 07/12/2013 05:12 EDT

BC Election Puts Justice Reform Under Political Spotlight

VANCOUVER - British Columbia's two main political parties each devote only a few brief sentences in their platforms to the issue of justice reform, which may seem like short shrift in a province where judges have generated headlines for tossing out serious charges against accused because of long trial delays.

But Kerry Simmons, executive director of the Canadian Bar Association's B.C. branch, looks on the bright side: in previous elections, the issue hasn't come up at all.

"Those mentions are more than have been in previous election platforms, so to me, this shows that candidates and parties are understanding justice is important," says Simmons.

"Justice is one of the fundamental parts of our society. Sometimes, that fundamental idea is not as interesting for people — until they need it, and then when they need it, they understand more can be done."

The issue of delays in the province's court system boiled over in 2011, after more than 100 cases were stayed by judges because of the time it took for the case to make it to trial. At least two judges used rulings from the bench to criticize the provincial government for underfunding the justice system.

In the 2011-2012 fiscal year, 20 per cent of adult criminal cases had been before the courts for more than a year, compared with 16 per cent several years earlier, according to provincial government statistics. Cases that stretch on for 18 months are at risk of being thrown out.

The justice system was in crisis, observers warned, prompting the Liberal government to launch a review of the entire system.

The report released last August by lawyer Geoffrey Cowper called for sweeping change to the way the courts are structured and run, making dozens of recommendations to address what Cowper described as a "culture of delay" within the system.

His recommendations included changes to how court time is scheduled, policies to encourage Crown counsel to make reasonable plea offers early in the process, and more funding for legal aid.

The report has also created an easy blueprint for the governing Liberal party and the NDP, both of which are promising to implement aspects of the report.

The Liberals point to two white papers they have released, which outlined plans to respond to Cowper's report, and the party's platform simply says it would "continue to implement" the report's recommendations.

The platform sets aside new money for legal aid, with an extra $4 million over two years. The Liberals also point out the province announced the appointment of nine new judges since Cowper's report was released.

The New Democrats' platform says the party would also increase legal aid funding, but to a far greater degree than the Liberals. The NDP would pour $17 million into legal aid over three years, most of that in the third year, while setting aside $8 million over three years for crime prevention and restorative justice programs.

Simmons' group released its own report earlier this year, titled "An Agenda for Justice," with recommendations to the political parties ahead of the election. The bar association identified legal aid funding as a critical component of any plan to fix court delays, arguing more than $113 million in funding cuts since 2002 have crippled the legal system.

The association called for almost $20 million in new funding for legal aid over the next three years.

"That would bring us to national average per-capita funding," says Simmons.

Mark Benton, executive director of the province's Legal Services Society, says his group identified several problems plaguing legal aid — most of which hinge on a lack of resources.

Currently, the society is limited in the types of cases it can take on and how many clients it can afford to handle and must limit legal aid services to only the lowest-income British Columbians, he says. The society also has trouble attracting lawyers to provide legal aid, he says, because rates have been cut so much.

"The difficulty we have is that the resources we have are very limited," says Benton.

"The problems are quite large. What our message to government has been is that investment in legal aid will result in savings elsewhere, and that will allow further investment in legal aid."

Shirley Bond, the Liberal party's justice minister, says she believes the government, the legal community and the judiciary are all ready for meaningful change.

She points to the creation of a Justice and Public Safety Council to guide those changes, as well as an annual justice summit — the first of which was held this past March. The Liberals also announced plans to take some types of cases, such as traffic offences, out of the court system altogether.

Bond says the problems within the justice system are systemic and can't be fixed with money alone.

"It is about tackling the fundamental issues that exist today," says Bond.

"I think British Columbians expect us to try and grapple with some of these issues and get to the root cause of the delays in the courtroom, rather than saying, 'Lets write the cheque first and then figure out the answers.'"

Leonard Krog, the NDP's justice critic and the person mostly likely to replace Bond if the New Democrats win the election, agrees the problems facing the system can't be fixed quickly.

Krog says an NDP government would continue the work that is already underway, and he gives the Liberal party credit for some of the progress that's been made in the past year.

But he is also quick to blame the Liberals for what he says is 12 years of neglect during the party's reign.

"They have let this file slide, which is why we are where we are," said Krog.

"It (the NDP's justice platform) is incremental. It's not as fast as I would like in a perfect world, but it is a reversal of the direction we've been going."

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