COLUMN: Paging Perry Mason; the cost of penny-pinching

Overcrowded courts are costing cities in the Lower Mainland – Surrey included – more than originally thought.

A well-used whiteboard stands on an easel behind the sheriff’s desk in courtroom 101, the high-ceilinged heavy-traffic Surrey Provincial Court chamber reserved for brief scheduled appearances by lawyers and their clients.

The on-duty sheriff uses it to write down names to let the judge and Crown prosecutor keep track of who is up next as they sort through dozens of pre-trial cases.

During a recent morning session, someone had written down “Perry Mason” in erasable blue ink where the names of on-duty counsel lawyers usually go.

It was an insider’s joke at the expense of one of the defence attorneys who provide free in-courtroom assistance.

Perry Mason, as portrayed on television by the late Canadian actor Raymond Burr, was an elite American attorney who had all the time in the world to investigate cases and acquire the evidence he needed to generate a dramatic courtroom confession.

The Surrey ‘Perry Mason’ works in the legal equivalent of a sausage factory, where the goal is to get through the long list of cases in a speedy manner, without trampling on people’s rights.

Some among the parade of accused who come to 101 are free pending trial.

They walk in and wait on the hardwood benches to hear their name called, while others are in custody in the nearby Surrey Pretrial Services Centre and some, from more distant correctional centres, appear via video link .

Usually, it takes only a few minutes to handle each case, a matter of setting a date for the next court appearance or the start of a trial.

One this particular morning, things are bogging down because about half the people who stand before the judge have elected to do without “Perry Mason” or his colleagues.

It is harder to get legal aid in B.C. than it used to be, especially if the case involves something relatively minor.

One man who is representing himself says that he understands the file of evidence handed him by the prosecutor, then admits under questioning by the judge that he can’t really read english.

He is told to come back Monday when the court will be able to provide a Spanish interpreter.

Another man has waited more than 500 days to get to trial on what appears to be a minor criminal charge.

He complains the delay has violated his rights and starts to launch into his self-researched legal argument when the judge interrupts and explains that he will have to wait until the trial to make those points.

The judge asks the duty Crown prosecutor how long that hearing has been scheduled for.

“Two hours,” she says.

“That won’t be enough” he says.

The judge makes similar observations several more times during the morning as one self-represented person after another tells the court they will defend themselves without benefit of legal counsel.

Here is where provincial government penny-pinching meets the law of unintended consequences.

Courtrooms have been closed and judges and sheriffs have been allowed to retire without being replaced in a bid to keep costs down, but as trial after trial goes into overtime to accommodate inexperienced defendants, one wonders how much money has actually been saved, if any.

Perry Mason would not approve.

Dan Ferguson is a reporter at the Peace Arch News.



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