Less money, not more, for B.C.'s justice system

Yesterday’s question period topic was the sad state of BC’s justice System after 11 years of BC Liberal cuts. Opposition Leader Adrian Dix led off with a question about a stay of charges issued by Judge Daniel Steinberg in the case of a man accused of attempting to lure children for sexual purposes, through the internet. Steinberg dismissed the case due to a 27-month delay in bringing the man to trial, saying “there is only one word to describe the current state of the Provincial Court of British Columbia’s ability to handle its caseload: abysmal.” How did  Premier Christy Clark respond?

“But here’s the thing,” Clark said.  “We are putting more money in at the same time that crime is dropping, the number of cases going to court is dropping and the length of cases is actually staying the same.  It just doesn’t add up.  We are adding more money to the system…"

No, here’s the real thing, Premier.  

There is not “more money.”  There is less money.  As the following chart shows, the Attorney General’s operating budget has been cut by almost 20 per cent in the last four years. 

AG budget estimates (in 000s)

2008/09             2009/10                2010/11            2011/12  

545,454           465,198                468,487            443,204 

The big cut came after Gordon Campbell’s 2009 election budget. The HST wasn’t the only surprise in the post election budgets. The biggest hit was taken by -- you guessed it -- court services. 

Every other key justice line item – the judiciary, prosecution services, was either cut or flat-lined over that time.  And of course, with inflation flat lining means a cut in service.

To recap, there isn’t more money as the Premier claims. There’s way, way less money. And the cuts were concentrated in our court system.

 As for the claim that there have been fewer cases? That's not what the Attorney General’s ministry says in its service plans.  Here’s the problem civil servants outlined in the 2010/11 Service Plan:

“The volume of small claims cases in Provincial Court has increased by 13.7 per cent over the last five years to over 19,000 new cases opened in 2010/11.” 

Criminal cases are also growing, according to the ministry:  “[T]he total number of Provincial and Supreme Criminal Court cases (including adult, youth and traffic) coming into the system has risen by 7 per cent over the last five years.” 

What's more, criminal cases are getting more complex and time consuming: “Criminal trials have also steadily become more expensive, lengthy and complicated," the document reads. Much of that is related to complex corporate cases and new forms of evidence like DNA.

Taken together its taking longer for criminal, civil and family cases to get to trial:  Wait times have seen enormous increases:  

“The median age of a small claims case at its first substantive appearance has increased by 35 per cent from 150 days in 2008/09 to 203 days in 2010/11. The median age of a small claims case at trial stage has also grown to 400 days from 320 in 2008/09.”


So 20 per cent less money and between 13 and 7 per cent more cases, depending on the area of law.  On to of that those cases are longer and more complex.  You do the math.

What has this government done about it?  They’ve reduced the targets in their service plan to reflect the cuts. 

In 2009 Attorney General Wally Oppal set a target to reduce the median time to trial for civil small claims in Provincial Court at 281 days by 2011/12.  In 2010, the new Attorney General Mike de Jong raised that target to 318 days.

Similar Orwellian adjustments were made for small claims settlement conference targets and family law cases. The bottom line is that B.C.’s justice system is performing exactly as the BC Liberals expected after the cuts. 

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