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Ontario to spend $72M to tackle courts backlog, hire court staff, Attorney General says

The Ontario Court of Appeal is seen in Toronto on April 8, 2019. A law that bars a judge from imposing a conditional sentence for certain offences was struck down as unconstitutional on Friday in a decision likely to find its way to the country's top court. In a 2-1 ruling, the Ontario Court of Appeal found the provisions of the Criminal Code run afoul of the charter because of their impact on Indigenous offenders. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Colin Perkel. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Colin Perkel

TORONTO — Ontario plans to spend $72 million over two years to tackle a courts backlog the province says has reached tens of thousands of cases over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Attorney General Doug Downey says part of the funding will go towards hiring more than 340 new court employees, including Crown prosecutors, victim support staff and bail vettors _ experienced Crown attorneys who facilitate faster bail decisions and resolutions when appropriate.

He says the additional staff will help boost trial capacity and reduce the number of cases coming into the justice system, as well as speed up cases already in the system.

Read more: Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice to defer cases due to COVID-19 pandemic

Downey says the province will also convene a team of experienced prosecutors to review files involving homicides and other targeted offences to help streamline those cases.

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He says the province is also renting space in some areas to boost physical capacity, and plans to continue using technology for remote hearings and build on other processes to help handle cases virtually, such as a digital evidence management program.

The attorney general says he wants to ensure charges related to crimes such as murder and sexual assault aren’t being stayed due to delays in the judicial system.

“I don’t think the justice system has seen this kind of investment in my living memory, quite frankly,” Downey said. “And I think it’s a real opportunity to hold the right people accountable and to move other people through the system.”

Downey said the funding should allow the backlog to return to what it was in 2019 by 2023, but stressed that isn’t the end goal.

“Getting back to where we were system-wise isn’t necessarily success, that’s presuming that the system was working properly before. So I’m a little more ambitious than just getting back to a level that we were at,” he said.

Read more: Ontario’s attorney general looks to clear provincial court backlog caused by COVID-19

In-person court proceedings were suspended in the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic, with only urgent matters moving forward remotely. Public health restrictions have made it so that very few jury trials were heard during the pandemic.

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An updated directive to Crown attorneys that took effect earlier this month instructed them to weigh whether prosecution is “viable and appropriate” and in the public interest given the impact of COVID-19 on the justice system.

It also directed prosecutors to consider all available and appropriate sanctions to resolve cases as quickly as possible, and to “make every effort possible” to minimize delays caused by the pandemic in order to reduce the risk of cases being stayed.

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