The number of cases over 18 months old before B.C. Provincial Court has climbed 16 per cent to 2,371.

The number of cases over 18 months old before B.C. Provincial Court has climbed 16 per cent to 2,371.

Congested courts put more cases at risk

Worsening backlog may set more accused free

More than half of all B.C. Provincial Court cases have been stuck in the system for at least a year and a growing number are at risk of being thrown out as a result.

Those are among the findings of a new update to the B.C. Provincial Court’s Justice Delayed report, which originally warned of serious delays in the system last fall.

The update shows there were 2,371 adult criminal cases before the courts for more than 18 months as of March 31– a 16 per cent increase from 2,038 a year earlier.

Criminal cases 12 to 18 months old climbed 18 per cent over the same period from 4,856 to 5,744.

Together, the two categories make up just over half of the court’s entire caseload.

Judges are bound by Supreme Court of Canada rulings on how long cases can drag on and trials are being quashed over unacceptable delays of as little as 14 months, depending on the circumstances.

The average delay across B.C. for a two-day criminal trial in March was 10.6 months, slightly worse than nine months earlier, although the stats show some improvement in the waits for child protection hearings, small claims trials and family law trials.

But the numbers vary considerably depending on the court house.

Surrey remains the worst for adult criminal cases, with a 16-month wait for a two-day trial.

Fort St. John, Chilliwack, Terrace, Vancouver (Main Street), Kelowna and Vernon were all booking two-day criminal trials at least 13 months away.

The longest delays for child protection hearings (13 to 15 months) were in Cranbrook, Abbotsford, Chilliwack and Terrace, while delays of 14 to 15 months were being recorded for family trials in Fort St. John, Cranbrook, Abbotsford and Chilliwack.

The original report recommended B.C. move to restore the number of Provincial Court judges from 126.3 full-time equivalents (FTEs) in September 2010 to the 2005 level of 143.6.

While a few new judges have been hired since the initial report, others have retired, been promoted to B.C. Supreme Court or opted to start to cut their hours to part-time.

As a result, the number of judges is now 125.1 FTEs as of the end of June, about 15 per cent fewer than in 2005 despite more cases of greater complexity.

The province passed a budget this spring requiring further cuts to court staffing.

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