27 August 2009

Rumpole and Justice Delayed


There is no question that our system provides a great method for adjudicating questions of fact and law, but given the expenditure of public funds we are obliged to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador to provide the best possible system in terms of the efficiency of the process.

Report on of the Task Force on Criminal Justice Efficiencies, February 2008

Administrative changes recommended by a committee of lawyers and judges to improve the province’s justice system still haven’t been implemented over 18 months after they were made public.

In December 2007, newbie justice minister Jerome Kennedy appointed a task force that included deputy minister Chris Curran, then Chief Provincial Court Judge Reg Reid and Mark Pike, the current associate chief judge, among others.  They issued their report in February 2008 because they were specifically directed “to make recommendations and to meet any necessary budgetary deadlines for the ensuing fiscal year.”

The committee agreed that “with appropriate leadership, goodwill and resources, its recommendations could be fully implemented by the fall of 2008.”

Some 18 months and two budgets later there is still no sign of some of the major changes, including a new system for assigning court time.  Kennedy was replaced as justice minister in late 2008 in a sudden cabinet shuffle.

In its report, the panel noted that:

Court sitting times in St. John’s have been declining for the last two years. It is a fact that in 2007, on average, in St. John’s, only 31% of the available courtroom time was utilized. For 2006 and 2007, on average in St. John’s, some 40% of the judge’s available sitting time was lost primarily due to collapsed cases.

The panel recommended use of a  Case Assignment and Retrieval System (CAARS), appointment of part-time (per diem judges) and appointment of a trial co-ordinator to oversee the efficient scheduling of cases.

In May 2008, Kennedy described the system for the House of Assembly:

So this system would be called the Case Assignment and Retrieval System, or the CAAR system, and would allow for flexibility. Essentially, what happens in Provincial Court today, if a trial is commenced, if that trial does not finish in the two days allotted then it goes to the six or eight months in the roster down the road when it next comes up to court.

Consistent with the committee recommendation, Kennedy told the legislature the target date for implementing CAARS was the fall of 2008. 

However, as cases like the Walsh trial indicate, the system is apparently still not in place. A trial co-ordinator position, also recommended by the panel to manage court schedules apparently hasn’t been hired.

One thing recommended by the panel has been implemented and that is the creation of per diem judges.  Essentially these are part time judges who are available on call and only used as needed. 

But with four vacant seats on the Provincial Court bench  - three of which are in St. John’s – the per diem judges likely wouldn’t make much of a difference to solving the problems noted in 2006 and 2007.

While Kennedy indicated in the House that the section of the act creating part-time judges wouldn’t be proclaimed until CAARS is ready, the judge positions already exist without the new scheduling system.