The backlog of cases in B.C.’s courts, and particularly in Surrey Provincial Court, is a travesty. However, it is just one of many travesties of justice that people in Canada seem, for the most part, oblivious to.
Surrey Provincial Court is where all Langley cases are heard, except those of the most serious nature. When the provincial government of the day decided to close the Langley courthouse in the 1990s, the idea was to save money. However, the net effect was to add even more cases to an already-overloaded courthouse in the fastest-growing community in the province.
Thus the delays that were already routine just grew worse. Anyone involved in a court case in Surrey can expect to wait for years for a final resolution.
While reopening a courthouse in Langley could slightly ease some of the problems, there are so many other built-in delays in the justice system that relief would likely be quite minimal. Many criminal cases already take months and years to investigate before any charges are laid. This is due to a backlog of police work and the very exact rules of evidence that must be followed at every level.
By the time a person is charged and makes a first appearance in such a case, it is often very difficult for witnesses to have a clear recollection of facts. A first appearance in court is a long way away from a trial. After a series of hearings to set future court dates, the first step in most criminal trials is a preliminary hearing, where many of the facts are gone over to determine if there is enough evidence for a trial.
To simply schedule a preliminary hearing takes a great deal of agility. There needs to be a judge available (which is a significant problem in Surrey), there needs to be availability on the part of Crown and defence counsel and many other things must come together.
While a preliminary hearing has some importance, as there is no point in a trial getting underway if there isn’t enough evidence, there must be a better way to determine the strength of the case. To keep adding this lengthy and burdensome step to an already-clogged system seems foolish.
However, many lawyers are quite happy to have all these steps in the system. It makes for higher fees, and it also keeps more of them employed. To many non-lawyers, it appears that the entire system of justice is set up primarily for the benefit of the legal profession — which includes judges, Crown counsel and defence lawyers.
It is very important that anyone accused of a crime gets a fair trial, and it is also important that they get a trial as soon as possible. Having a charge hang over your head for years is a burden which many people find extremely stressful and challenging.
For victims of crime, who are always the forgotten ones, having a trial date drag on interminably is horrific. We have had many Langley cases where this has gone on. One of the most notorious was that of William McCotter, who was eventually found guilty of murdering two people outside their Langley City apartment in 2001. It took five years years for justice to finally be done.
This is simply unacceptable, but it won’t change unless public clamour for change grows.