Is the BC criminal justice system improving?

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In 2012 lawyer Geoffrey Cowper QC investigated BC’s criminal justice system. As chair of the province’s Justice Reform Initiative he made recommendations for improving the system. This fall he prepared an update on the progress made in the last four years. Where do things stand today? Has there been improvement in BC’s criminal justice system?

Mr. Cowper thinks so.

He says British Columbians should be proud of what has been accomplished over the past four years, and of the ambition of the projects underway or in development. He lauds British Columbia as having built on its long history of innovation to become “a leader in justice system innovation and performance”. And he praises BC’s Provincial Court for its progress in trial scheduling, transparency and accountability. Here are some of the highlights of the progress related to the Provincial Court that Mr. Cowper describes in his update.

Trial Scheduling
Among the “astonishing number of initiatives” that have been implemented in the last four years, Mr. Cowper cites the Provincial Court’s Trial Scheduling Project as providing “an excellent example of innovation in services … championed by the Court, facilitated by Court Services and others in the system, and accomplished without sacrificing judicial independence”. He explains:

“The Court has rolled out an assignment court scheduling system in the seven highest volume courthouses in the Province. In those locations, all cases ready to proceed to trial first go to an assignment court where they are assigned judges for trial. This process is intended to reduce the occurrence of judicial downtime that tends to arise when cases resolve on the day of trial. Anecdotally, the process appears to be proving effective in increasing judicial utilisation, and facilitates the ability to assign cases in order of their priority for judicial attention. An evaluation of the assignment court model will be undertaken and will shape its future in British Columbia.”

The Provincial Court had begun work on its trial scheduling reform before Mr. Cowper’s 2012 report, ‘A Criminal Justice System for the 21st Century’, was issued. Since 2012, in addition to establishing assignment courts, the Court has simplified front end procedures, established summary proceedings trial courts to provide early trials for administrative or breach offences and other short trials, and used technology – including new scheduling software and digital signs showing the courtrooms in which trials are proceeding - to support these initiatives.

To accomplish all this, the Court built on its tradition of working collaboratively with stakeholders to achieve cross-platform planning and collaboration among judges, the provincial government’s Court Services Branch (responsible for operating the courts), Crown Counsel, defence lawyers, and the Legal Services Society. While evaluation of the Trial Scheduling Project is underway and it is still early to draw conclusions, there have been some noticeable benefits in many locations.

Mr. Cowper reports that the Provincial Court has “made huge strides in making available accessible information respecting timeliness and the trends in its work. … The Court’s website and the Chief Judge’s Annual Reports offer the public a quick understanding of timeliness by subject area.”

The Court posts Time to Trial reports on its website every six months and provides detailed measurements of its time to trial performance standards annually. Not only does the Court share information about trends and timeliness, but it is enhancing the utility of that information. The Court is implementing a new business intelligence platform that will put it at the forefront in gathering, analysing, and using information to better evaluate and manage its work. The chair of the Court’s technology committee Judge Gurmail Gill comments, “Using technology in new ways enables us to recombine information and mine data with more sophistication – to ultimately better support the Court’s work and make decisions impacting the use of public resources.”

In addition, a 2013 Canadian Bar Association resolution praised the BC Provincial Court as a “model of transparency” for providing statistics on applicants’ gender and declared ethnicity in its Judicial Council’s Annual Reports. The Provincial Court’s Annual Reports also provide proportional statistics on the gender and age of judges. Posting weekly eNews articles and maintaining an active and engaged Twitter account are other ways the Court demonstrates its commitment to transparency.

Judicial Complement
However, Mr. Cowper notes that his initial report’s recommendation to develop objective measures to determine an appropriate judicial complement (the number of judges needed) for the Provincial Court has been studied but not resolved in the last four years. The provincial government has passed the necessary provision to implement this recommendation but has not yet brought the section into force. The Court has taken initial steps toward developing an evidence-based approach to determine an appropriate judicial complement to meet the needs of British Columbians and is eager to move forward on this recommendation.

Nevertheless, appointments have kept pace with retirements during the last four years. Judicial complement reports recording the total number of judges, appointments, retirements and moves to the part-time Senior Judges program are posted on the Court’s website every month. These reports, and the Court’s Annual Reports, indicate that 10 judges were appointed in the 2013/14 and 2014/15 fiscal years, and 18 in 2015/16, for a total of 28 in the three years following the Report. Another 12 judges have been appointed since March 31, 2016.

Restorative Justice
Mr. Cowper observes that senior justice system leaders have demonstrated exceptional leadership and displayed both persistence and patience in pursuing broad changes to the criminal justice culture as well as initiatives designed to achieve real change. In the update he recommends that they actively participate in increasing public understanding of restorative justice and its broader use in BC.

Mr. Cowper’s comments involve restorative justice in the context of alternate measures or diversion programs that take cases out of the court system. But for cases that remain in court, the Provincial Court has been actively engaged in incorporating restorative justice concepts in the sentencing process. Restorative justice principles are a fundamental component of BC’s specialized courts including Drug Treatment Court, Vancouver’s Downtown Community Court and the Victoria Integrated Court. They are also a foundation of BC’s First Nations Courts, and in the last four years the Provincial Court has added three First Nations Courts – in North Vancouver, Duncan and Kamloops – to the original one in New Westminster.

He also reports a “sea change” in attitudes toward collaboration and innovation in the justice and public safety sectors. The Provincial Court has a long tradition of working with stakeholders on innovative initiatives, and it has brought its openness and collaborative spirit to Justice Summit meetings (convened by the Justice and Public Safety Council to discuss concrete measures for improvement in criminal, family law and mental health areas) and to Access to Justice BC (an action-oriented group of diverse stakeholders).

Further recommendations
Mr. Cowper believes the cultural change necessary for sustaining effective reform is well underway and has been widely embraced. Moreover, he discerns “a growing consensus around the steps required to build a better managed system to improve public safety and fairness, respond to the dynamic changes in criminal conduct, and operate with transparency and accountability.” Nevertheless, he makes specific recommendations for further improvement in some sectors of the criminal justice system, and generally.

Across the system, in addition to making better use of business intelligence systems and increasing public understanding of restorative justice, he recommends improving early warning systems and intervention policies for exceptional cases, and improving system-wide performance indicators and cost evaluation.

Read the reports
Cowper Report Update October 2016

Cowper Report August 2012