Supreme Court lays out new framework for ensuring right to timely criminal trial

In potentially groundbreaking decision, Surrey man has dial-a-dope conviction and four-year jail sentence set aside, charges stayed

Dial-a-dope seizure in Surrey.

OTTAWA—The Supreme Court of Canada, citing a “culture of complacency” in the justice system, has set out a new framework for determining whether a criminal trial has been unreasonably delayed.

In a potentially groundbreaking 5-4 decision Friday, the high court said the old means of determining whether a person’s constitutional right to a timely trial had been infringed was too complex and unpredictable.

The Charter of Rights and Freedoms says someone charged with an offence has the right to be tried within a reasonable time.

Under the new framework, an unreasonable delay would be presumed should proceedings—from the criminal charge to conclusion of a trial—exceed 18 months in provincial court, or 30 months in a superior court.

However, these benchmarks are not set in stone.

The Supreme Court made the ruling in deciding that the British Columbia drug convictions of Surrey’s Barrett Richard Jordan must be set aside due to an unreasonable delay.

Jordan, then 27, was sentenced to four years in prison in 2013 after being convicted of leading a dial-a-dope operation in Langley. He was the target of an RCMP investigation in 2008, and was arrested in December of that year.

In December 2012, a B.C. Supreme Court judge dismissed an application by Jordan and his girlfriend to have their criminal charges dropped based on their right to a timely trial.

In a dissenting Supreme Court of Canada opinion released on Friday, a minority of the court agreed the charges against Jordan should be stayed, but called the new framework for gauging delays unwarranted and unwise, saying it could lead to thousands of prosecutions being tossed out.

The Crown could challenge the notion that a delay is unreasonable by showing there were “exceptional circumstances,” a majority of the court said in its reasons.

These circumstances could include something unforeseen and beyond the Crown’s control, such as a sudden illness, or a case requiring extradition of an accused from another country. They might also arise in “particularly complex” cases that involve disclosure of many documents, a large number of witnesses or a significant need for expert evidence.

The Supreme Court said that as a transitional measure for cases already in the system, the new framework must be applied “flexibly and contextually.”

The right to be tried within a reasonable time is central to the administration of Canada’s criminal justice system, the high court said.

“An unreasonable delay denies justice to the accused, victims and their families, and the public as a whole.”

However, unnecessary procedures and adjournments, inefficient practices and inadequate institutional resources have been “accepted as the norm and give rise to ever-increasing delay,” the ruling said.

The old framework failed to address this “culture of complacency,” and participants in the justice system—police, Crown counsel, defence lawyers, courts, provincial legislatures and Parliament—were not encouraged to “take preventative measures to address inefficient practices and resourcing problems,” the court said.

Follow @JimBronskill on Twitter

Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press

—with files from Black Press

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