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Court Backlog Keeps On Growing

Rocky Balboa

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Ontario's court backlog jumped 9% over four years to a staggering 97,000 criminal charges, attorney general ministry figures obtained by the Sunday Sun reveal.

"It's clear that the criminal justice system is in crisis; it is on the cusp of collapse," NDP MPP Peter Kormos said. "And this reinforces the need for a public inquiry into the recent staying of charges against Toronto police officers so we can understand exactly what's happening in the ministry of the attorney general and in the criminal courts."

According to the latest data available from the ministry, 97,176 criminal charges had been waiting for trial for more than eight months in 2006/07. The 2005 Ontario Auditor General report noted as of February 2002, there were 89,000 criminal charges backlogged in the courts.

Sheamus Murphy, a spokesman for Attorney General Chris Bentley, said the number of criminal charges entering the justice system grew by 9.4% in the five years between 2001/02 and 2006/07.

CASELOAD UP

"So while the number of charges have been increasing, there's a 3.3% decline in the number of charges that are pending more than eight months and that's compared to five years ago," Murphy said.

"Although there's an increase ... the proportion of the total cases has declined."

Criminal charges can also be in the hopper for longer than eight months for reasons other than the backlog, such as the complexity of the case or actions by the parties involved, and not be deemed to be at risk by unreasonable delay.

Since a 1990 Supreme Court of Canada ruling that a routine case should be tried within 8-10 months -- the Askov decision that resulted in 50,000 Ontario criminal charges being tossed out of court -- the eight-month trial wait has become an important benchmark for the justice system.

CASE TOSSED

An Ontario court stayed charges of conspiracy, perjury and obstruction against six Toronto police drug squad officers this past week, after the defence asked the case be dismissed for unreasonable delay.

Kormos said that decision raises questions about whether there are systemic problems with under-resourcing in the court system, and if other serious prosecutions are in jeopardy.

"This whole case cries out for a public inquiry," he said. "The stay of these charges raises concerns in the minds of a whole lot of the public about the fairness of the justice system."

Since becoming attorney general last fall, Bentley said he has been working on initiatives to be unveiled over the next few months to help resolve the backlog problem.

Over the past four years, the ministry has added 24 appointees to the Ontario Court of Justice and created 150 more Crown attorney positions.

Half of 40 new Crown hires went to the clogged Scarborough and Brampton courts in southern Ontario.

Bentley said his ministry is continually trying to improve the justice system and alleviate backlogs, a problem that has dogged Ontario's court system for decades.

Source: Ottawa Sun
Author: Antonella Artuso, Queen's Park Bureau Chief
Copyright: 2008 Canoe Limited Partnership
Website: ottawasun.com
 
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