December 10, 2019

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Northern bail delays indefensible

Editorial

Queen’s Bench Judge Chris Martin, in his judgment last week regarding two mistreated Manitobans from northern Indigenous communities, shone a spotlight on scandalous abuse of some accused persons by the courts of this province. Justice Minister Cliff Cullen should promptly provide enough court time and facilities in Thompson to offer fair and lawful bail hearings.

Judge Martin had to rule on applications by Lesley Ann Balfour from Norway House and Dwayne Gregory Young from Split Lake, who both believed the justice system had violated their constitutional rights. Ms. Balfour, whose charge of assault was later dropped, spent about 51 days in custody before her first bail hearing. Mr. Young, who was later acquitted of aggravated assault, waited 23 days in jail before his bail hearing, and he was eventually found not guilty. By law, the delay before a bail hearing should not exceed three days.

"This is disturbing chronicle of a dysfunctional bail system," Judge Martin wrote in opening his decision. That was a polite understatement. His meticulously researched decision is a searing indictment of the way a Winnipeg-centred justice system abuses northerners who become victims of its inefficiency.

"This is disturbing chronicle of a dysfunctional bail system." — Queen's Bench Judge Chris Martin

For lack of sufficient justices of the peace, prosecutors and legal aid lawyers in Thompson, the court hearing bail applications commonly wraps up its work at 5 p.m. each day, leaving applicants to come back some other time. Family members who have travelled hundreds of kilometres to appear in court and take responsibility for sheltering the accused person are told to come back next week.

Persons remanded in custody, because the court cannot be bothered to hear their bail applications, are trucked about the province, to The Pas or to Brandon or to Winnipeg, where they have no chance of seeing their relatives or their lawyer — merely because Manitoba is too cheap to build an adequate remand centre in Thompson.

Justice Minister Cliff Cullen is not delivering timely justice as directed in his mandate letter from Premier Brian Pallister. (Mikaela Mackenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Justice Minister Cliff Cullen is not delivering timely justice as directed in his mandate letter from Premier Brian Pallister. (Mikaela Mackenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

By Canada’s Criminal Code, an accused person can be held in custody for three days and must then be brought before a judge with a chance to ask for release on bail. By local practice in Thompson, however, just because the system is inefficient, people can be held for up to four weeks until the court finds it convenient to hear them. The rights enjoyed by accused persons in Winnipeg are purely theoretical for people in Norway House or Split Lake.

Mr. Cullen’s mandate letter from Premier Brian Pallister at his appointment 13 months ago holds him responsible for "advancing the government’s Criminal Justice System Modernization agenda focusing on crime prevention, serious criminal cases, more effective use of restorative justice and responsible reintegration of offenders to create safe communities and timely justice."

He is not delivering timely justice. One danger he faces is that a great many offenders in northern Manitoba will stand on their legal rights and go free simply because his justice system never gets around to hearing them. Another danger is that he will hold people in noisy, dangerous lock-ups and truck them around from one hellhole to another just because his officials haven’t got time for them.

Technology may be able to provide some quick fixes, such as bail hearings by video. But if the problem is a lack of judges and court officers, more gadgets can only make a slight difference.

Judge Martin asked for a comprehensive review of the treatment of accused persons on remand in northern Manitoba. Mr. Cullen should take the hint.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.

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