Campbell River judge’s scathing comments about court delays supported by supreme court justice

Judge Saunderson blamed Crown counsel as well as systematic delays caused by an underfunded and undermanned court system

A Campbell River judge erred in staying impaired driving charges, but the BC Supreme Court did back up the judge’s stinging comments on the lengthy delays plaguing the provincial court system.

The case centres around Albert Turner, a logger from Port Hardy who was stopped for alleged drunk driving on April 11, 2010. One month later, he was officially charged with impaired driving and operating a motor vehicle with an unlawful blood-alcohol concentration.

For various reasons, the case did not proceed to trial until Jan. 18, 2011. And, at that time, provincial court Judge Brian Saunderson issued a stay of proceedings – i.e. the charges were dropped – because the case took too long to come to trial.

Judge Saunderson blamed Crown counsel as well as systematic delays caused by an underfunded and undermanned court system, as his reasons for the decision to stay the charges.

“We have a total delay period…delay attributable to the Crown and so on…which is well outside the period of time that is permissible according to the Supreme Court of Canada,” the judge said, as he did cut the Crown some slack. “The Crown is placed in an extremely difficult position…when having to decide between any number of cases on its list and deem one to be more important than the other.”

But the judge offered no concessions to the provincial BC Liberal government which he blamed for underfunding the court system resulting in too few judges, Crown prosecutors, sheriffs and clerks.

“It comes as no surprise to anybody in this province…that there is not enough court time, and it seems to me – and there are many successful applications for judicial stays in British Columbia, many, many of them – that the government has made a decision…it has simply decided not to provide adequate funding,” said Judge Saunderson. “It is a regrettable state of affairs, but that is what it is.”

The judge’s decision to stay the charges was challenged by the Crown in B.C. Supreme Court. The case was heard in Courtenay on May 29, and a decision was handed down June 12.

In a written decision, Justice Christopher Grauer said that while some of the delays in the case were attributable to the Crown, some were due to the availability of the defence lawyer.

As a result, while the case did take 20 months to proceed to trial, Justice Grauer said the systematic delays accounted for just eight-and-half-months, well inside the 8-10 month guideline established by the Supreme Court of Canada.

He also found that Turner did not face prejudice as a result of the delay.

“For these reasons, I have concluded that the trial judge erred in law,” he wrote. “…the delay that occurred in this case cannot in law be characterized as unreasonable…It follows that the appeal must be allowed and a new trial ordered.”

But one of the final points made by Justice Grauer was to back up Judge Saunderson’s observations of the provincial court system.

“I should add, however, that nothing in these reasons for judgement is intended to detract from the force of the trial judge’s observations concerning the institutional difficulties his court faces,” he said.

A new trial date for Turner has yet to be set.