Saskatchewan considers limits on preliminary hearings to reduce court delays

Saskatchewan eyes limits on preliminary hearings

REGINA — The Saskatchewan government says dropping preliminary hearings for all but the most serious crimes could help address court delays.

A Ministry of Justice email to media says the province supports limiting hearings to alleged offences for which a sentence of 14 years or more could be imposed.

The ministry says it estimates the move could reduce the number of hearings by 40 per cent and would help reduce how long it took for someone to get to trial.

“There’s been some concern expressed around the country that they’ve resulted in delays,” Justice Minister Gord Wyant said Wednesday.

Wyant said full disclosure, in which the Crown must disclose relevant information to the accused, may make preliminary hearings less necessary.

“But certainly we’ve heard from the defence bar and from the courts that preliminary hearings do continue to serve a role in terms of perhaps determining the veracity of a witness, for instance,” he added.

The email says provincial and federal justice officials are to meet Thursday and Friday to talk about court delays and preliminary hearings.

Wyant said he also wants to meet with the chief justices of Saskatchewan’s Court of Queen’s Bench and provincial court to talk about options.

The debate comes after a Supreme Court ruling last summer set deadlines for trials to take place. The ruling said a provincial court trial must be completed within 18 months of a criminal charge being laid and within 30 months in superior courts.

Cases have been dismissed across the country because they took too long to get to trial. Most notably, a Quebec Superior Court judge ruled earlier this month that a man would not be tried for the death of his wife because he spent 56 months in jail without a trial.

Saskatchewan justice officials say four cases have been dismissed so far, two of them because of the availability of witnesses.

Manitoba is making a similar request to do away with preliminary hearings.

Ontario’s attorney general has also asked the federal justice minister for help reforming the Criminal Code to limit the use of preliminary inquiries.

The Canadian Bar Association said in a news release earlier this month that it’s concerned about the impact of delays on victims and witnesses, as well as the potential to undermine confidence in the justice system.

The association listed 10 ways to reduce court delays, including appointing enough judges and providing adequate legal aid. 

It said preliminary hearings should be kept because they usually mean an earlier resolution of the case or a streamlining of matters if it does go to trial.

Wyant said that needs to be considered too.

“Many cases get settled at the preliminary hearing stage with guilty pleas or charges being withdrawn, and so I don’t think we want to lose that opportunity.”

Jennifer Graham, The Canadian Press

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