Writing about criminal matters in B.C.’s court system is an exercise in patience.
Whether it’s translating legalese, navigating the cryptic Court Services Online website, having no access to BC Supreme Court files online, or simply keeping track of court appearances that go on and on and on, all while weighing the public interest each and every time, it’s exhausting.
Take the case of Ronald McDowell, who was sentenced last week to three years in prison. McDowell and his co-accused Earl Wiebe were both convicted of a botched home invasion on Fairfield Island at a house with a medical cannabis grow-op. This incident in a quiet, rural area in the early hours happened (at this writing) 2,411 days ago. That’s right, it’s been more than six years since April 3, 2014 when the residents of a house heard a pounding on the door in the early hours.
The man in the house unlocked the door, and McDowell tried to push it in. He was told there were children in the house.
“I don’t care,” McDowell yelled, evidence that came out in the trial I attended in 2015. “We’re coming for the weed.”
The man in the house then had gasoline thrown on him. But then the two intruders fled, and one poured gasoline onto a pole on a deck on the house.
He said, “I’m going to light it up.” He didn’t. They fled. The two men were later arrested, McDowell and Wiebe were charged with break-and-enter with intent, assault with a weapon, uttering threats, and possession of incendiary material.
On Nov. 30, 2015, Wiebe pleaded guilty to uttering threats and forcible entry, and was given an 18-month conditional sentenced followed by probation.
McDowell’s case was far from over. On Feb. 1, 2016, he was convicted of break and enter, uttering threats, and the lesser-included offences of the other two charges, assault and mischief in relation to property.
On March 15, 2018, McDowell was sentenced. But then he appealed. His hearing in front of the Court of Appeals for BC was Jan. 30, 2020, and on Feb. 10 the three Justices granted his appeal: “The trial judge erred in relying on voir dire evidence that was not admitted into the trial proper to establish identity. New trial ordered.”
But no trial happened, and on July 28, 2020, he again pleaded guilty, this time to just uttering threats and the lesser included offence of assault (rather than assault with a weapon).
So what took so long to resolve this? Well, in this case, I don’t exactly know. But I do know there a lot of factors that lead to delay. From legal manoeuveres to a lack of resources to the complexity of the court system (and the law), there are many reasons.
Here are three examples of cases I’ve seen that led to delays, two in recent weeks, one from a while back:
1. I was in BC Supreme Court for a dangerous driving causing death sentencing on Nov. 9 at which time the lawyer for the accused told the judge that his client had fired him, so the sentencing would have to be kicked down the road.
2. Another case also involved a conviction awaiting sentencing and similarly went off the rails at the last minute as the accused is now facing a charge of uttering threats, and the local Crown counsel on the file has been replaced.
3. Bomb threats are more than irritant to the justice system, and certainly can cause delays.
There are also systemic reasons for delays in both criminal and civil matters, namely a shortage of court time and judges, something exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We have had a dramatic increase in population in the province in the last 20 years, we’ve had a dramatic increase in the number of filings of civil claims in our courts,” Justice Christopher Hinkson said in an August 2020 article in Canadian Lawyer magazine, but, he added, “there hasn’t been any real increase” in the court since the mid-1990s.
Hinkson said a shortage of judges coupled with the pandemic will lead to a backlog of all hearings, particularly civil matters.
Hinkson also said (again, in August) that the court had 1,114 trials, including criminal cases, cancelled during the time when courtrooms were closed. Of those, 531 – not quite half – had been rescheduled.
As for jury trials, strict pandemic protocols are in place at the Chilliwack Law Courts, one such rule is that no more than 12 people can be in a courtroom at any given time. Usually in Chilliwack, this isn’t a problem, but you know how many people there are in a jury? At least 12, usually 14 including alternates.
Recently there was a jury trial held at the Chilliwack Cultural Centre, and in the new year a trial is likely going to be held at Evergreen Hall.
It would be an overstatement to say the court system is in tatters, but cracks that many observers have already seen in the system are spreading and deepening in the current situation.
As for timely justice? I don’t see that improving any time soon.
Paul Henderson is editor for The Chilliwack Progress.