28 July 2016

Reforming the courts #nlpoli

The numbers in Tuesday's post showed all the time spent in the court in each seat,  totalled up for the month, averaged,  then divided by seven to give an estimate of full-days the courts in the province actually sit.

Judges do other work besides sitting in their courts.  But you really have to wonder if the courts are as overtaxed as some would have it when you have so many of the judges spending as little as three days or even six days a month, in total, actually sitting in court hearing evidence or motions or what have you.

The truth is the Provincial Courts  are not burdened at all. According to people familiar with the operations of the courts, about 85% of the charges laid in Provincial Court never go to trial.  There are either plea deals or the charges are withdrawn.

Trials take up about 15% of court time. Even then, the typical trial may take as little as 90 minutes.  That's certainly not what you might expect.

Before that,  every charge will involve a first appearance and a plea.  There might be a bail hearing, which itself may be quite short.  The record in this province is probably the five days Sean Buckingham's lawyer spent trying to get him released on bail. The Crown will have to disclose its evidence to the defence.  Sometimes that gets a bit complicated and there are delays.  This sort of administrative work is necessary and eats up a certain amount of court time but that is included - just to be sure - in those monthly totals used in Tuesday's post.

And when you talk about the sorts of delays involved in appeals like R. v. Jordan,  what you are talking about is the total time that passes in between that first appearance and the point when the judge passes sentence.  If anyone thinks taking the courthouse out of Harbour Grace will lead to a rash of cases violating the timelines set down in Jordan, that person just has no idea what he or she is talking about. Well, either that or he or she is counting that you don't.

In order to shorten the time for cases to get from start to finish, you have to provide some kind of management of the time lawyers take to do their part of the entire affair.  Not everyone is as diligent as he or she could be.  There are plenty of complaints from all over the province but one spat surfaced in Clarenville while Judge Harold Porter was trucking back and forth between Clarenville and Grand Bank.

The case is now waiting for a decision from the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador but the crux of the issue was whether or not you needed a judge to be physically present with the accused and the lawyers in order for a trial to proceed.  Porter, like many Provincial Court judges, had run into too many instances when he had cleared the Grand Bank docket to show up in Clarenville only to find the cases set for Clarenville for the week were either postponed or resolved quickly.  The result was that two court centres had empty dockets for a full week.

At some point the Supreme Court will rule and, if it goes the way many expect,  the courts will allow cases to proceed with videoconferencing.  There'd be nothing revolutionary in that since Provincial Courts already use videoconferencing for first appearance during Weekend and Statutory Holiday (WASH) sessions.  Our Provincial Courts might finally enter the 20th century.

At the same time, we have to find some incentive for lawyers to use court time wisely.  A better time-management system within the courts might help that, especially when lawyers know they will be looking for a postponement or ending a case without going to trial.  If the courts can deploy judicial resources more efficiently and effectively, we might be able to find a court system that serves the people of Newfoundland and Labrador more efficiently and more effectively.