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Victims in limbo [Part 2 of Justice Denied series]

Delays in the courts leave abused women waiting longer and facing more pressure from families to return to violent spouses. - Photo illustration
Delays in the courts leave abused women waiting longer and facing more pressure from families to return to violent spouses.
— image credit: Photo illustration

Hateful words gradually became hurtful blows.

She endured weeks of it before summoning the strength to walk out the door and turn to the police, transition houses and courts for help.

Punjabi-speaking counsellors and police officers were supportive and she prayed for a quick resolution, knowing she would face enormous pressure from her husband's family not to shame their son.

But months later, after numerous court adjournments, frustration and tears – but no trial – she gave up.

She went back to her abusive spouse.

Sad stories such as this are becoming more common in B.C.'s congested justice system.

Spousal assault cases are high priority and aren't at risk of being thrown out due to excessive delays like many impaired driving cases and some other criminal prosecutions.

But advocates say the time to get to trial is getting longer.

And the wait can spawn tragic consequences.

"When it's delayed for a long time, normally we lose our victims," Surrey Women's Centre program manager Maryan Majedi said. "They go back to their husbands. They get repeatedly assaulted. It's like a revolving door."

Domestic abuse cases are supposed to move through the courts within three months.

But in Surrey and some other B.C. centres, that time period often stretches to four or six months.

And Majedi notes that's after time has elapsed for the police to investigate and prosecutors to approve and lay charges – often bringing the wait for a trial to a year following the assault.

Court delays are particularly difficult for South Asian women, said Manbeen Saini, a community-based victim services worker in Surrey.

"The family is wanting her to drop charges, not even understanding that she can't do that," Saini said, explaining that prosecutors decide to pursue legal action. "The longer it stays in the court system, the more pressure she's going to get."

And when battered women give up on the courts, Saini said, it's usually forever.

"They say they're never going to the police again," she said. "I hear it all the time.

"So what message are we sending out? What justice is this?"

•••

Longer delays for all sorts of court proceedings are the result of cuts in the number of provincial court judges in B.C., coupled with shortages of sheriffs, clerks and other support staff.

Samiran Lakshman, president of the B.C Crown Counsel Association, calls the situation a "deliberate" and "systematic" stripping of the critical resources the justice system needs to function – a policy that increasingly exacts a human toll.

Prosecutors worry not just that abused women will go back to violent partners, but also that memories of sexually abused children will fade, their testimony will be less persuasive, and offenders will go free.

Families are also waiting longer for the courts to decide matters such as which parent will have custody of the children, finalizing divorces and setting child support payments.

"It's heartbreaking for the parents of children in foster care," said Kamloops family lawyer Brenda Muliner.

She represents a couple in Nelson fighting to regain custody of their children who were apprehended by child protection workers in 2007.

It took a year and a half to get a date for trial to decide permanent custody – September 2011 – by which time the kids will have been in government custody for four years.

"It's staggering," Muliner said. "And it's going to get worse."

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.'s Representative for Children and Youth, is also concerned.

"These delays are really tarnishing the reputation of our justice system for British Columbia's families," she said.

Child protection workers from the B.C. Ministry of Children and Family Development can knock on a door and remove children from a home based on evidence that is often disputed.

That power exists, Turpel-Lafond said, on the understanding parents have a speedy right to challenge the removal, with the courts either upholding it and issuing a temporary custody order or else returning wrongfully apprehended children.

Child protection applications are supposed to be heard within three months.

But Turpel-Lafond said the average wait in B.C. is more than four months and she's aware of waits of eight months and longer at courts in Surrey, Chilliwack, Abbotsford, Prince George and parts of Vancouver Island.

New hearings in those areas are being scheduled in 2012 – and those are in best-case scenarios where parents quickly obtain legal aid, another major trouble spot.

"We're dealing with a system that makes a mockery of that timeline," Turpel-Lafond said.

"Childhood is short. It's 988 weeks. If you spend 50 weeks waiting for a hearing because you can't get a court date, that is just completely unacceptable."

Families sometimes give up and move on, she said, and the child falls permanently into the custody of government.

In custody battles between parents, Turpel-Lafond said, delays mean child view reports – which guide the court on how much time kids want to spend with each parent – are often a year out of date when the hearing gets to court, by which time children's wishes may have changed.

The need for speed may be just as important when youths are charged with crimes.

Consequences of actions simply aren't as meaningful for young people if it takes a year or longer to get to trial, she said, calling the youth criminal justice system "remarkably backlogged."

The victims of youth crime are often other young people, who also end up waiting longer for closure.

Provincial court judges have recently signalled family court delays have grown unacceptable and have directed a shifting of court time, which could come at the cost of criminal matters.

In other words, even more delays.

•••

Even animals are paying the price for congestion in the courts.

Family and friends of 12-year-old cancer survivor Max Rose were outraged last month when the man who shot and killed the boy's Jack Russell terrier puppy Seymour walked away unpunished.

The case was thrown out of Campbell River court when the judge ruled the 19-month delay before the case went to trial unreasonably violated the rights of the accused.

"It's pretty upsetting," father Nick Rose said. "We're getting a first-hand look at our legal system and it's pretty pathetic."

Animal cruelty investigators seize abused pets and charge owners in cases of maltreatment. If convicted, the law allows a potential lifetime ban on animal ownership.

But officers are often unable to stop those accused of cruelty from acquiring more animals or abusing others in their care while a case grinds through the system toward an eventual trial.

"The time in between you're concerned about other animals that may be in their custody," said Marcie Moriarty, the B.C. SPCA's manager of cruelty investigations.

"These delays can literally be life and death for animals."

jnagel@surreyleader.com

FACES OF DELAY: MATTHEW HEENAN

Matthew Heenan was crossing a downtown Kelowna street with friends after leaving a nightclub Nov. 22, 2009 when he was mowed down by a drunk driver.

The 23-year-old Coldstream, B.C. resident was pronounced dead just over an hour later.

The driver was charged last August with impaired driving causing death and causing an accident resulting in death.

Matthew's parents, Mike and Jo Heenan, have now been told a preliminary inquiry won't happen until March of 2012.

They're fearful the case against their son's accused killer will be thrown out on grounds of the unreasonable delay in getting to trial.

Even if the trial proceeds by fall of 2012, that will be more than two years since charges were laid – deep in the danger zone where judges can be compelled to agree the wait has violated the rights of the accused.

"We are desperate," Mike Heenan said.

They have appealed directly to B.C.'s Attorney General to proceed by direct indictment, eliminating the need for a preliminary inquiry – an unusual step that would normally have to be initiated by Crown prosecutors.

So far, the accused 49-year-old West Kelowna man has spent one day in jail and had a 90-day driving suspension.

"Our dead son is relegated to a number in the system," Heenan said, adding Matthew worked at Kal Tire and was about to retrain as an autobody technician.

"Every day this person goes without trial is an affront to our son's life and our society," he said.

"Every day we are reminded of our son's death and suffer the anguish of delays and uncertainty. Where is the justice? When can we expect closure?"

 

Do you have a personal story of delay in the court system? Email jnagel@surreyleader.com

 

BY THE NUMBERS

• 47 courthouses scheduling child protection cases beyond three-month legislated standard as of mid-2010.

• 5.2-month average wait for a half-day child protection hearing.

• 44-per-cent increase in length of time to get to trial for half-day child protection cases from 2009-2010.

 

LONGEST DELAYS

(as of June 2010, from Justice Delayed report)

Child protection hearings:

• 11 months in Prince George, Vanderhoof (vs three-month standard)

• 9 months in Kelowna, Chilliwack

• 8 months in Abbotsford, Terrace, Merritt

 

Wait for next available family hearing:

• 11 months in Prince George, Sechelt

• 10 months in Abbotsford, Chilliwack

• 9 months in Surrey, Kelowna

 

JUDGES' WARNING

"Over the last year there has been a dramatic increase in the delay and volume of uncompleted civil, family and child protection cases."   – Sept. 2010 Justice Delayed report of the B.C. Provincial Court

 

MORE IN JUSTICE DENIED SERIES

PART 1:

Courts in crisis

Lack of sheriffs adding to court system delays


PART 2:

Victims in limbo

Faces of delay: Matthew Heenan


PART 3:

Defence on the offence

Legal aid: What happened to justice for all?


PART 4:

Policing fallout

Faces of delay: Torie and Jessica


PART 5:

No cash for courts

Court disarray 'deplorable', NDP critic says


OPINIONS

Editorial: Justice denied - This is an election issue

Column: The many travesties of justice

Letter: No faith in justice system

Letter: ‘I read this article while my blood boiled’

Letter: Justice system isn't working

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