As time-to-trial statistics remain well above the benchmark set by the provincial court, but an Okanagan lawyer said a new courtroom would go a long way to get those numbers in line.
The semi-annual time-to-trial report, published on the provincial courts website, shows average statistics for the time it takes for trials of various lengths to go before a judge.
Last year, according to data running up to Sept. 30, 2017, the time it took for criminal matters to make the trial stage in Penticton dropped across the board, and only for trials shorter than two days did the courthouse make the top-10 list, at an average of eight months to trial.
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That was a drop from nine months the year prior, when it was named the third longest time-to-trial in the province, according to the September 2016 report, while neither Vernon nor Kelowna’s courthouses made the list.
But eight months is still above the benchmark the B.C. courts have set for a standard wait time for trial, at six months for a trial of less than two days.
In terms of two- to four-day trial lengths, Penticton fell below the top-10 list, with a typical wait lasting eight months, compared to nine the year before, when it ranked number seven in the province. But that, too, is still above the benchmark, at seven months for two- to four-day trials.
That compares with Kelowna’s and Vernon’s courthouses, both of which fell within the benchmark on all criminal trial lengths.
Speaking from his own experience, Penticton lawyer Michael Welsh said part of the improvement might be some of the work of the judicial case manager.
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“The judicial case manager we have here is very efficient and good at trying to make time or find time, move judges around to get things heard,” he said.
Moving forward, Welsh added since the report’s September closing date, Penticton’s courthouse has had some additional help, as the B.C. provincial court added Judge Michelle Daneliuk to the bench in September.
Though her arrival comes just prior to senior Judge Gale Sinclair’s departure, with his full retirement expected after spring break, Daneliuk will be considered a full-time judge, while Sinclair is a half-time equivalent.
“We currently have two-and-a-half full-time judge positions, which is better than we had for a long time,” said Welsh.
The lawyer was also quick to note that while Penticton’s trial wait times have fallen, there is still some work to do to meet the benchmark.
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“The problem in Penticton, really, in terms of trying to move something through more quickly, is the lack of courthouse space,” he said. “There are two provincial courtrooms and then a conference room that gets used on occasion, plus the one Supreme Court room, which sometimes the provincial court can use if it’s not otherwise being used.
“But if things get busy, especially if there’s a Supreme Court of size going on, then it can be really difficult to find room to hear all the things that need to be heard.”
Though the number of judges will be dropping back down to two full-time equivalents come spring, Welsh said he didn’t believe that would hamper progress from an additional courtroom.
“We have judges who come down from Kelowna, or elsewhere as well, from time to time, or you can set things up to have them done by video,” he said. “I’ve not really seen a situation in Penticton where a shortage of judges has been a real problem in terms of getting things moving forward. It’s more the lack of sufficient courtroom space.”
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But time-to-trial stats still fall well below the rules set out by what’s commonly referred to as the Jordan ruling, which limited provincial court trials to 24 months between charges laid and trial.
Though there have been some challenges, Welsh acknowledged there has been a concerted effort to cut down on time-to-trial waits at the B.C. provincial courts.
“They are trying, but each courthouse has its own issues that it has to deal with.”