Systemic Delay—the Enemy of Justice
"Because a sentence against evil deeds is not enforced promptly, the hearts of the people become even more prone to committing these wicked crimes." Ecclesiastes 8:11.
Over 5 years ago, in March of 2005, a terrible tragedy occurred in Mayerthorpe, Alberta. Four RCMP officers died in an ambush. Their killer then turned his gun on himself. Two other men were convicted of manslaughter for their part in the event. They were sentenced in early 2009, nearly 4 years after the tragedy. An official inquiry is taking place in January of this year to clear up details still plaguing the victims' families. It is good and right that the inquiry takes place. One only wonders why it should take so long to get to this stage.
Time matters. While waiting months or years for a court ruling, it matters whether an accused is waiting behind prison bars or on the outside looking in. While high-profile cases grind their way, slowly and painfully through the court system, both the accused and the victim (or the families of the victim in cases of murder) are being wrongfully deprived of justice.
The common practice of postponing court appearances to a later date may fit better with lawyers' schedules—and fatten their wallets—but it prolongs the agony of the innocent, interferes unnecessarily with the lives of honest citizens, gives the guilty more time to fabricate excuses and costs taxpayers a pile of money.
When criminals have access to taxpayer-funded legal counsel in a taxpayer funded court system, abuse of privilege is inevitable. The layers of impediments to true justice are like the layers of a huge cancerous onion and as you begin to peel them away, they do make you want to cry. Due process is supposed to protect the innocent from unjust practices on the basis that guilt must be established—without entrapment, torture, unwarranted search or detention. All suspects—both the guilty and the innocent—are entitled to legal counsel. The principle that one is "innocent until proven guilty" is at the core and is the essence and spirit of the law. That principle must be defended if Canadians are to retain the distinction of being a just and civilized society.
The presumption of innocence however, is surrounded by a minefield of objectionable clutter that hinders the ability of just and honest citizens, whether they be policemen, lawyers, judges, politicians, journalists, witnesses or victims to ascertain guilt within a reasonable time frame, prescribe penalties appropriate to the offence and take actions to reduce the likelihood that similar crimes are committed in the future.
The single element that could bring the most relief to our backlogged, expensive and unjust system would be the requirement that every person accused of a crime have the opportunity (non-optional) of facing his or her accuser in court within days or at most weeks We must end pervasive rescheduling of court days for the convenience of lawyers and clients. Perhaps we need to put penalties in place to keep justice moving: eg. if the accused fails to appear, an automatic one month prison sentence. If a lawyer fails to appear, an automatic fine equivalent to the cost of operating the court for the day.
Delays and tangled tales are nothing new. In Charles Dickens' epic, Bleak House, written in the 1800s, a court case, revolving around an inheritance and known as "Jarndyce and Jarndyce", drags on not only for years but for generations with methodical slowness and predictable results. The broken dreams of expectant heirs, the wasted efforts and mind-numbing proceedings, the giving of evidence and the postponement of justice terminates finally with all the money drained away into the legal abyss. That case involved only money and material wealth and so do many cases today. Even more heartbreaking though, are those cases of violent assault, of loss of life and assaults on purity. In most of these cases all that can be known or ever will be known about the crime is discovered within 24 hours. Endless investigations, lengthy reports, boringly publicized news angles and anxious weeks spent waiting for the final sentencing ensue. Then the appeals start, the reduced sentences, the probation boards, the public opinion polls. It becomes melodrama, perverse entertainment as journalists and news anchors drag the public and family members endlessly through the few fragments of evidence, the bitter and tearful outrage of the families of the victim or the families of the accused.
Often, while waiting for trial and sentencing, even dangerous criminals are left on the street. Take the case of Muhammed Isa Muhammed, an asylum-seeker who has been on Canadian soil since 1986. He was a terrorist involved in an act that caused death. He arrived here on false pretences. The Canadian government has spent over $3 million on his case but he is still here and he is still free.
Then there are the innocent victims of court delays. In Ontario, a gentle grandmother, Linda Gibbons, languishes behind bars, where she has been since Jan 2009, waiting for her case to be heard. Her crime? Trying to prevent murder. Linda Gibbons merely spoke quietly with women in front of an abortion clinic. For a series of such offences she has already spent more time in prison than Karla Homolka.
How many lawyers does it take to say "Enough!"? I'd like to talk with those ready to take a stand. (No, not the stand.) A stand for common sense and a collective pursuit of justice.