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Homicides swamping legal system

Courts face challenges: chief justice

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As the bullets continue to fly on city streets, there is growing concern inside the halls of justice about the ability to handle the rising number of homicide cases.

Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench Chief Justice Glenn Joyal says lengthy judicial delays, a lack of experienced lawyers and increased pressures on citizens to do their civic duty are all issues his court is currently struggling with.

One of court's main goals is to cut down on the workload through an increased emphasis on pretrial discussions in which judges work with Crown and defence lawyers to resolve the matter before it gets to trial.

"Criminal law is high stakes," Joyal said in a wide-ranging interview with the Free Press on Friday. "Time won't be wasted on frivolous issues. (Judges) are as much occupied with the concept of resolving as adjudicating." The need for efficiency was illustrated this past week, as Joyal noted four separate homicide cases were being argued on the same day. Joyal and other legal observers say that's only likely to become more common given the amount of violence happening in Winnipeg.

"It's exceptional. It's increasingly serious and concerning," Joyal said. Winnipeg experienced a record-setting 41 homicides in 2011. The number of actual offenders is even larger, as many homicides involved multiple accused. The majority of those accused have yet to reach the Court of Queen's Bench, but they are coming. Joyal said the court must be ready to ensure justice is served.

Most people charged with homicide, especially first or second-degree murder, elect to be tried by a judge and jury. That's part of the reason a record six juries were selected in late August, a number that is likely to be surpassed in the next couple of years. That will also prove to be a challenge, as many people are often reluctant to serve and will come up with virtually any excuse to get out of it.

Joyal said there are also a limited number of veteran, experienced Crown attorneys and defence counsel who can handle these types of cases, which may involve complex legal arguments that can drag on. For example, two of the current ongoing homicide cases are being prosecuted by retired veteran Crown attorneys who are now working on contract with the province.

"Some of these cases have become trials within a trial," said Joyal. "The court is always well served by senior, sage and experienced capable trial counsel."

All judges are on notice to take action if they see someone "out of their depths, punching above their weight" in a criminal case. Options can include speaking to the Law Society or legal partners as part of a "mentoring" process Joyal says is important.

Joyal believes there are several other steps that can improve judicial efficiency. He said that includes being more transparent with the public, such as a concerted effort being made to issue more written judgments that citizens get access to through media reporting and court websites.

"I think judges now understand that's a benefit," he said. "How do judges speak (publicly)? They speak through their reasons. Sometimes we have to provide those nuances. There's something legitimizing about that. Public information is critical when it comes to maintaining confidence in the judiciary."

Joyal said efforts are underway to work with all justice officials to ensure witnesses or victims who may have safety concerns about testifying in court are given the security they need. This is a key issue given the rising number of gang-related cases being seen in Winnipeg courtrooms.

Joyal has also implemented a plan to draft new "criminal rules" that will create specific timelines lawyers and judges must meet to move cases along more quickly. They are expected to be introduced in the next 12 to 18 months.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 1, 2012 A5

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