Refining improvements to access to justice: 2021/22 Annual Report

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The BC Provincial Court’s annual reports are fact-filled summaries of the last fiscal year, presented in a colourful, readable format, as part of the Court’s commitment to transparency and accountability. They include caseload and operational performance statistics, judges’ and judicial justices’ demographics, responses to complaints, and more.

The 2021/22 report shows how the Court managed its caseload during the pandemic’s second year, ending the year with provincial weighted time-to-trial delays generally similar to 2019’s pre-COVID rate. It includes a milestone in judicial demographics, and showcases photographs taken by the Court’s judicial officers and staff. This eNews outlines some highlights of the report.

Managing caseload to avoid crippling backlogs
The report outlines how the Court used initiatives like pre-trial conference in criminal cases, virtual bail hearings, virtual case conferences in family and civil matters, and early resolution of family court cases to reduce the number of trials needed and their length.

In April 2021 the Court launched the Northern Bail Pilot Project to test the use of virtual courtrooms for centralized bail hearings. When early evaluation was positive, the Court expanded the model to the Interior Region with variations to suit regional needs.

The Court continues to assess how these projects:

• reduce displacement of accused people from their own communities;
• reduce overnight remands in police cells;
• reduce travel for sheriffs, prisoners, and lawyers;
• reduce interruptions to previously scheduled trials; and
• increase access to duty counsel, Crown, and other resources.

Anecdotal reports are positive. For example, reports from smaller court locations indicate that without interruptions for bail hearings more trials are finishing as scheduled. Times to trial are also falling in many of these locations.

In 2020, when some court operations were suspended due to COVID, the Court employed virtual conferences to explore whether cases could be resolved without trial. In family and small claims matters, judges met with litigants and lawyers using the Microsoft Teams video platform or telephone. Virtual pre-trial case management conferences were adopted in some criminal matters. These continued through 2021/22 with initial results indicating they led to a high file resolution rate, thereby saving many days of trial time and reducing trial delays.

In May 2021 new Provincial Court Family Rules streamlined procedures and incorporated referrals to community resources. Aspects of the “early resolution” approach in the new rules had been launched in Victoria in 2019 and Surrey in 2020. There, virtual justice access centres provide timely access to family justice counsellors and other resources before court applications are filed. Published in January 2022, the final evaluation of this approach in Victoria found that 69% of families were able to resolve their disputes without litigation.

Thanks in part to these initiatives, overall provincial weighted time to trial delays in 2021/22 were generally similar to 2019’s pre-COVID rates, although some individual court locations experienced increases.

Judicial complement
First, an explanation of the terms the Court uses when reporting on its “judicial complement”, the number of judges in the Court.

Most judges work full-time, but judges aged 55 years or older with at least 10 years’ service may choose to sit part time as a “senior judge”. The report uses the term “active judges” to include full-time and senior judges but exclude judges not working due to long term disability.

To calculate the “judicial full-time equivalent” (JFTE) of judges in the court:

• full-time judges are counted as 1;
• senior judges are counted as 0.45;
• any part-time judges are counted according to their sitting time as a proportion of a full-time judge; and
• judges on long term disability are not included.

In 2021/22 the Court had an average daily complement of 139.1 JFTEs.

Judges’ demographics - gender and age
Of the 54 judges appointed to the BC Provincial Court during the last five fiscal years, just over half (29) have been women.

On March 31, 2022, 52.7% of full-time judges were female.

However, 73.9% of senior judges were male.

Using the formula above to calculate the Court’s judicial full-time equivalent, on March 31, 2022 50.8% of the Court’s JFTE was female - a figure close to the percentage of women in BC’s population.

On that date, the average female Provincial Court judge was 59.8 years of age, whereas the average male judge was 61.6. Most Provincial Court judges were between the ages of 50 and 64, with an overall average age of 61 years and median age of 60 years – similar to the previous year.

Attending court remotely
One or more participants attended court remotely (using the Microsoft Teams video or audio platform or telephone) in 79% of all criminal, family, and civil Provincial Court appearances in 2021/22. While attending remotely has proven convenient for many litigants and lawyers, many others face barriers to remote attendance. The Court is continuing its efforts to ensure that technological advances offer flexibility and don’t leave anyone behind.

New specialized courts
The need for reconciliation with Indigenous peoples is an ongoing imperative. The Provincial Court continues to work collaboratively with Indigenous communities to build new pathways for reconciliation. In 2021 the Court added an Indigenous sentencing court in Hazelton.

In addition, a new integrated community court was opened in Kelowna.

BC Provincial Court 2021/22 Annual Report

Photo credits: Judge L. Wyatt, Administrative Judicial Justice G Hayes, Judge D. Stewart, A. Rounthwaite