‘Allow Crown to keep laying charges’

Allowing police to lay charges could also clog the court system further.  - Colleen Flanagan/The News
Allowing police to lay charges could also clog the court system further.
— image credit: Colleen Flanagan/The News

Don’t mess with the way bad guys are brought into court unless you want to make lawyers a lot richer and drag down the justice system even more.

Two defence lawyers say that allowing cops to lay charges could clog up B.C.’s justice system even more, though they could be rolling in dough because of it.

Presently in B.C., police hand their reports to Crown prosecutors, who see if there’s enough evidence to slap on a charge.

If there is, the case goes forward.

If the prosecutors think police need to do more work, they tell them to gather more evidence.

Once they’re satisfied, the charges are sworn and a courtroom date is booked.

But B.C. Justice Minister Shirley Bond announced last week that she will review that model and compare it with the system used in most provinces, where police lay charges, then pass them on to the prosecutors. Only Quebec and New Brunswick follow B.C.’s practice.

“I, personally, think it would probably provide me with more work,” said Maple Ridge lawyer Robert Gunnell.

“At the end of the day, Crown are the ones who make the determination as to whether it meets charge approval standards.

“So why would you put that at the front door rather than the back door?

“If you want to weed out the stuff that shouldn’t be there, isn’t it better to get that done before somebody is charged?”

That could result in dragging people through the courts for months before a charge is stayed or dismissed. Gunnell also pointed out that if police lay charges, only to have them stayed, (put on hold for a year pending more evidence) that file could hang around and show up in an individual’s criminal record check, even though there’s been no conviction.

New Westminster lawyer David Milburn wants to know how the conviction rates in Ontario, where police lay charges, compare with B.C.’s.

According to Statistics Canada in 2008-2009, B.C. had a conviction rate of 70 per cent and Ontario, 60 per cent. Ontario also had a higher percentage of charges that were stayed or withdrawn – 38 per cent compared to B.C.’s 26 per cent.

The current system is working well, Milburn said. Fewer convictions could result by allowing police to lay the initial charges.

“I think the charge procedure ought to remain as it is, with the Crown. They’re the ones that have to prove the charges,” he added.

The prosecutors are the ones who have to manage the case in the courtroom, said Milburn, who successfully defended Maple Ridge resident Victoria Turley, charged with failing to provide the necessities of life in the death of teenager Shannon Raymond.

The current set-up is straightforward, he added. “You get a report, you read through it.” That can be a half-hour process, after which the Crown prosecutor knows if it’s worthwhile going forward and that any time Crown lays a charge, they’re usually tough cases.

“You start having police review charges and determine charges and the Crown, in robotic fashion, goes forward and tries to prove those charges … get ready for more acquittals, get ready for more wasted court time, get ready for more guys like me … making more in the process and having a larger acquittal rate.”

But like Gunnell, he’d welcome the business. “As a defence counsel, bring it on ... As a citizen, I’m opposed to it. In the end, it will result in a less-efficient court system.”

The current system also serves as a check on police power, added SFU criminology professor David MacAlister.

“I’m sure, for them, there’s nothing worse than putting in a report to Crown counsel and then having it sent back.” Police could file an incorrect charge, then have the Crown withdraw it – but by then the accused’s name is public, he added.

Bond has hired Gary McCuaig to review the process as part of the Justice Reform Initiative.

Bond said the system of pre-screening charges “works well for the most part – 57 per cent of police reports are assessed within one full working day of being received, 71 per cent within five days and 93 per cent within 30 days.”

But she said it’s prudent see if that system can be improved.

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