‘Historic backlog’: More than 1,200 court cases at risk of being tossed in N.S.

Click to play video: 'Cases thrown out amid N.S. court backlog'
Cases thrown out amid N.S. court backlog
Nova Scotia's court system is facing mounting pressures which could lead to the dismissal of some cases. With backlogs, staffing constraints, and a shortage of court rooms – the province is struggling to keep up. Ella MacDonald reports – Jun 13, 2024

Nova Scotia’s court system is facing mounting pressures and a “historic backlog” in cases, meaning some accused may never face trial.

The province’s justice minister, Barbara Adams, revealed this week more than 1,200 cases are at risk of being thrown out due to delays because of the 2016 Jordan decision. That Supreme Court of Canada decision set a deadline of 18 months for provincial court trials and 30 months in superior courts.

“Of course, I am upset, as all Nova Scotians would be, whenever there is a case that is not going forward — it is not being heard on its merits,” she told reporters.

“One is too many, regardless of the circumstances. But certainly, the more serious cases that involve sexualized violence or things as serious as that, are tragic and we don’t want to see that happen.”

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Adams, who took over the portfolio in April, admitted there is a lot of work to do to clear the backlog, but the province is “continuing to monitor things.”

She pointed out that in January, the province announced 29 new permanent Public Prosecution Services positions and 19 new court service positions. A grant of $227,000 was also given to Nova Scotia Legal Aid to hire an additional lawyer and support staff.

Nova Scotia is also establishing a new bail court, which will be located on Spring Garden Road in downtown Halifax. Adams said the province is close to issuing a tender for the $1.75 million build.

“What I’d like to say to the Nova Scotians is that when we had such a historic backlog, we knew that it was going to take time to get to a point where these would not be happening. We’re not there yet,” said Adams.

But Liberal Leader Zack Churchill said he finds the situation troubling and with no clear solution in sight.

The full complement of judges in the province is 28. There are currently no vacancies, however, one judge continues to be on long-term leave. 

“Now’s a time where we have to expand the amount of judges on the bench, and actually staff the prosecution services up to where they are asking us to staff them,” said Churchill.

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“I’m worried that the minister and the government are brushing this off. We’ve got serious offenders that are walking on the streets and not even having their day in court, and I can only think about the pain that causes to the victims and their families when that happens.”

‘Right to access justice’

Among the cases recently impacted were charges against two people accused of harassing the province’s chief medical officer during the COVID-19 pandemic. Jeremy MacKenzie and Morgan Guptill were charged with criminal harassment for protests against restrictions outside Dr. Robert Strang’s house in 2022. The pair were originally set to go on trial this month, but last week, a judge decided that the case had dragged on too long. 

Strang told Global News he understands the court system has capacity issues — much like health care. However, he says Canadians should expect a “right to access justice.”

“So that’s a serious issue that governments need to work with,” he added. “What was important for me was to understand that this decision was based really on court process and judicial challenges around capacity etc. and was in no way, any [indicative of condoning] the behaviour of the individuals that were outside of my home.”
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Click to play video: '2 charged after protests outside Nova Scotia  top doc’s house'
2 charged after protests outside Nova Scotia top doc’s house

Brian Cox, the president of the Nova Scotia Crown Attorney’s Association, said while the province’s ideas for improving the system are “good,” it will be difficult to implement them all.

“The bail court hasn’t started yet, our judicial complement hasn’t kept pace with our population, and from those 19 prosecutor positions, we’re net-neutral boots on the ground. We’re still losing our most experienced and seasoned talent,” he said.

Cox said he expects the backlog will only continue to grow.

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