Court of Appeal Justice Richard Scott is leaving the bench after more than 20 years as chief justice worried about the cause of justice in the province. He believes people are being denied full right in law due to backlogs and because of the cost of going to court.
It is a familiar refrain from those inside the system, or from people with experience with courts. Justice Scott, in exit interviews with the media, singled out the financial constraints on Legal Aid Manitoba to serve those in need.
Legal Aid Manitoba restricts the amount and the cases it covers. The income thresholds used to determine who qualifies -- from $14,000 to $37,000 gross income, based on the size of the family -- have not risen since 2000. That means many working poor will not get a lawyer.
Lawyers, judges and Crown attorneys have warned for years there must be greater investment in the courts and legal aid to serve the purpose of justice, generally, and to stem the number of people acting as their own counsel in court.
But Justice Scott also sees that courts are backlogged because politicians have forgotten (or ignored) a critical cog in the system -- the number of judges available for hearings and the other work of the judiciary.
In one interview, Justice Scott noted the tough-on-crime agenda has seen more police and Crown attorneys hired, but not judges. This contributes to delays in scheduling court hearings -- hence the rising number of people being held pretrial in custody -- but also in delays to judgments rendered and inquest reports completed. All five inquest reports in 2009-10 were filed in six months, the mandatory deadline for their completion.
Further, just over half the criminal cases before Winnipeg courts are resolved within four months, nine per cent take longer than 18 months.
Ottawa and Manitoba should review judge workloads.
As for the concern about access to justice, financial thresholds to qualify ought to move at least with inflation. Directing people to mediation, rather than court, to settle disputes is cheaper, but still costs money. And there is work to be done to improve efficiency in the criminal courts -- preliminary hearings should take a matter of days, not weeks.
Getting tough on crime is a simplistic mantra. Ensuring that all Manitobans have access to justice is complicated. A system that focuses simply on catching, charging and keeping people behind bars betrays the core values of a country ruled by law.