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Reforms an option to tackle Canada’s court delays: justice ministers

Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada Jody Wilson-Raybould speaks during a press conference at the Federal-Provincial-Territorial Meeting of Ministers Responsible for Justice in Gatineau on Friday, April 28, 2017. (Justin Tang/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Justice ministers from across Canada have agreed to consider targeted criminal law reforms, including changes to mandatory-minimum penalties and bail, in an effort to tackle delays in the court system.

Federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould met with her provincial and territorial counterparts in Gatineau, Que., on Friday to discuss solutions to backlogged courts and serious criminal charges being thrown out as a result of delays. The emergency meeting comes nine months after a ruling from the Supreme Court of Canada, known as R v Jordan, set time limits for trials of 18 months in provincial court and 30 months in superior court. Judges have thrown out four murder cases since then – two in Quebec, one in Ontario and one in Alberta – over delays.

“It is based on the Jordan decision and the delays that are being faced in courts across the country that we came together to have discussions and put forward some substantive solutions that we’re going to be collectively pursuing,” Ms. Wilson-Raybould said during a news conference following the all-day meeting.

“Ministers agreed on the need for targeted criminal law reform and federal ministers committed to further legislative action.”

The justice ministers identified four main priority areas for officials to work on in an effort to get the courts moving faster: mandatory-minimum penalties, bail, preliminary inquiries and reclassification of offences.

The federal government has already promised to review 72 mandatory minimum penalties in the Criminal Code, many of them introduced by the former Conservative government. It is believed mandatory-minimum sentences have reduced the number of accused willing to accept a plea deal because they can’t negotiate a shorter sentence.

Ontario Justice Minister Yasir Naqvi said officials will look at the bail system. Mr. Naqvi said about 60 per cent to 65 per cent of people in the criminal-justice system are remanded to provincial detention centres, instead of, say, releasing them under supervision into the community. “These are accused, not found guilty yet, but they are being remanded to a detention centre,” Mr. Naqvi told The Globe and Mail in an interview. “That’s too much of a high rate. A lot of these people are low risk. They’re vulnerable. Many of them may have mental-health or addiction issues.”

Some provincial justice ministers are also pushing the federal government to make changes to the Criminal Code to speed up proceedings. Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba and Alberta are in favour of limits on, or the elimination of, the preliminary inquiry – a pretrial hearing in which a judge screens charges to determine whether there is enough evidence to go to trial.

Finally, Mr. Naqvi said the reclassification of offences could entail changing penalties on some convictions to five years less a day so the cases can stay in provincial courts, where the timelines are generally faster, instead of going all the way to the superior court.

Several provinces, including Alberta and Quebec, are also pressuring Ms. Wilson-Raybould to fill judicial vacancies to address the backlog. Quebec Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée and Mr. Naqvi said they received assurances from the federal minister Friday that the vacancies will be filled.

Justice ministers will consider the reforms over the summer before they meet again in September.