WESTLOCK – Westlock RCMP Staff Sgt. Al Baird was flummoxed when told that trial dates at Westlock Provincial Court are now being booked into 2023.
“Wow. I don’t know what’s going on, I really don’t,” said Baird Sept. 9.
Over the past month, more and more cases in Westlock court are being scheduled for trial dates later into 2022, with at least one at the Sept. 8 sitting scheduled for January 2023 — at two of the past three court sessions in Westlock, the physical site was locked and the judges and lawyers videoconferenced in. But the delays in Westlock are far from uncommon and are just part of an ongoing trend across the country as COVID-19 continues to play havoc in courtrooms stalling everything from traffic cases, to murder trials.
For Baird the adjournment of cases is concerning on a number of levels as the right to go to trial within a reasonable time is a provision of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. A ruling made by the Supreme Court of Canada in 2016, known as the Jordan rule, put limits on the amount of time an accused person should have to wait to fight their charges in court. For crimes considered by a provincial court, the limit is 18 months, while more serious cases considered by higher courts have a time limit of 30 months.
People who wait longer, many of them in custody, can apply to have their case dismissed — once the application is made, it is up to Crown prosecutors to convince the judge that the delay was reasonable or unavoidable, or that it can be justified by "exceptional circumstances."
According to the CBC, Jordan applications that cite COVID-19 delays as a reason for exceeding the deadlines have so far been unsuccessful in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario and B.C.
“The government promised all this stuff to us to alleviate the backlog, but I don’t know if they’re having trouble hiring more lawyers or judges. To me I don’t know how these matters are getting dealt with,” said Baird. “It’s frustrating, especially when you think that we’re looking at 2023.”
Baird said the delays only leads to more frustration for the victims, who in some instances may wait years to see justice served. Adding to the exasperation is when witnesses are called and the trial gets delayed — a scenario that played out in Westlock Sept. 1 as court didn’t wrap that day until 4:20 p.m. and a scheduled trial of Travis L. Jean, which included six Crown witnesses (only one was called), will now continue Dec. 9 in Barrhead.
“We know how the general public feels and know they’re getting frustrated. We have no control over the system and that’s not to slam the other people who are a part of the judicial system,” Baird continued. “We want people to realize that the police are doing what we can, but we have no control over the how long the court process takes … and that’s frustrating for us too. All we can do is keep plugging away and doing the best we can and hope they clear the backlog.”
The final long weekend of the summer was relatively quiet for RCMP, who had their hands full in the days leading up to it with a pair of accidents Sept. 1 and 2 on area highways that saw five taken to hospital with a variety of serious, but non-life-threatening injuries.
Baird said they did do a boat patrol on Long Island Lake over the weekend aimed at improving safety, while the highways, which were busy, remained collision free.
“We did some education out there and were talking to people about lifejackets, water safety and checking some boats and talking to fishermen. It worked out really well,” said Baird. “But beyond that the long weekend was relatively calm.”