Sweeping changes to Manitoba's court system are being considered to make it faster, friendlier and more efficient.
Several initiatives are underway to study aspects of criminal matters, family court cases and child protection.
"The status quo is unacceptable and culture shifts are required," Chief Justice Richard Chartier of the Manitoba Court of Appeal said during a nearly 90-minute news conference Friday outlining the new system.
"The goal is to continue to improve access to justice in Manitoba."
On the criminal side, judges say there are growing concerns about how long cases are taking to make their way through the system. It's not unusual for a serious matter to stretch out at least four years.
"It's unjustifiable and unacceptable," said Chief Justice Glenn Joyal of the Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench.
'The goal is to continue to improve access to justice in Manitoba'
He said victims of crime are being left in limbo, key witnesses' memories are fading and the delays reflect poorly on all involved in the process.
One issue being examined is whether preliminary hearings are necessary in their current form. Judges from all levels of court say their primary role -- to ensure necessary evidence is disclosed and to test whether there is evidence to send an accused person to trial -- is being abused.
"They have become a sort of mini-trial," said Joyal.
Preliminary hearings can often take weeks and almost always result in the case proceeding through the system, albeit at a snail's pace.
Chief Judge Ken Champagne of the Manitoba provincial court said they are proposing systemic changes in which alternatives will be sought.
That could include having witnesses testifying about preliminary matters outside of a courtroom, not unlike examinations for discovery that occur in civil matters.
Champagne said he is also speaking with provincial government officials about the burden of inquests.
'They are a huge drain on resources'
A Manitoba judge recently recommended some inquests that are mandatory under existing legislation could be scrapped if there is not sufficient interest from the parties involved to hold them.
"They are a huge drain on resources," said Champagne, noting provincial court judges are juggling the scheduling of 20 inquests right now.
On the child-protection side, judges say they are concerned there are some 10,000 Manitoba children in care, with more than 80 per cent of them being aboriginal.
"The time has come to try and address this concern," said Champagne.
A pilot project is being launched to study other means of dealing with child-protection cases that will be less adversarial and more community-based.
Key stakeholders will be consulted and a more holistic and collaborative approach will be used. The goal will be to safely reunite more families through mediation.
"We've all heard the saying 'It takes a village to raise a child,' " said Joyal.
'It's unjustifiable and unacceptable'
In terms of family law, a committee has been struck to examine ways to avoid the often complex, expensive legal process that can drag out for years.
Specific emphasis will be placed on dealing with self-represented individuals, and changes will be made so legal materials are user-friendly and accessible.
The idea is to divert more cases to counselling and conciliation, which will free up court resources.
Finally, the public will continue to get a glimpse of live legal action through the Cameras in the Courtroom pilot project that began earlier this year.
Media will be allowed to continue broadcasting selected cases, with the possibility of expanding ones involving actual testimony and not just decisions from the bench or legal arguments.
"We're going to go step by step, let it evolve," said Chartier.
"A lot of people were telling us the skies are going to fall if you allow cameras in the courtroom. The skies did not fall."
The judges don't expect change to come easily, but say they plan to work closely with all members of the justice system.
"You'll probably hear dissatisfaction at some point," Joyal admitted.