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‘Significant’ backlog in N.S. provincial court cases has ‘significant impact’

The Nova Scotia Judiciary held its first State of the Nova Scotia Courts address Friday. Callum Smith / Global News

A slew of judges gathered in a Halifax courtroom Friday, but there was no criminal proceeding.

The Nova Scotia Judiciary held its first State of the Nova Scotia Courts address.

“Today is an opportunity to tell you about our courts and some of the initiatives we’re undertaking,” Michael Wood, the chief justice of Nova Scotia said.

With more complex crimes, a provincial court backlog, and increasing pressures on judges, there’s a clear strain on the system. But the courts have tried to evolve and adapt, especially during the pandemic.

Pamela Williams, the chief judge of the provincial court, detailed “the good, the bad and the ugly” when it comes to how the court system is doing.

The positives, she said, included the realization of virtual court appearances in some circumstances, and filing documents, such as warrants, virtually.

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Pamela Williams, the chief judge of the provincial court, reflects on the state of the court system. Callum Smith / Global News

The bad news, which appears to be symbolic of society at large, she said, “is the stress caused by the pandemic and the impact on the people working within the system, including judges.”

She also cited staffing shortages and the increased pressures stemming from that.

‘Significant’ backlog

90-95 per cent of criminal law in Nova Scotia goes through provincial court, Williams said.

“The ugly, I’m afraid to say, is the ongoing backlog of criminal court cases, which is significant,” she said. “It has significant impact on the people we serve, it has significant impact on members of the public and the rest of the system.”

While not addressing specifics at the podium, Williams said there have also been three major changes that have transformed how courts have operated over the years, specifically at the provincial level.

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  1. The enactment of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982
  2. Merging of County and Supreme courts in 1990
  3. Changes and amendments to the Criminal Code over time

There has been “an increase in the type and complexity of matters heard in provincial court.”

“There have been new offences as a result of technology and internet, but there’s also been the increasing complexity of existing offences, such as driving offences, drinking offences, sexual assaults, and the various pre-trial applications that come with them,” she said.

When fully staffed, there are 28 provincial court judges. But there are two vacancies, and one judge is on long-term leave, Williams said.

Number of judges ‘has not kept pace’

“There are increasingly challenges with our current compliment… the increase in complexity of cases, the volume of cases, and the compliment, unfortunately, of judges has not kept pace with the increase in resources afforded to the Crown or to Nova Scotia Legal Aid,” she said. “Or, it hasn’t kept pace either with the demographics in our growing province.”

Seven judges have been appointed within the past year, but there has been six retirements in the same timeframe.

“There’s a higher-than-normal retirement rate going on and we’re anticipating some more appointments very soon, so we’re trying to keep the bench full as well as we can,” Justice Minister Brad Johns told reporters.

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But for Williams, it all leads to “increasing pressure to book more cases, hear more matters, deliver more decisions, judges sitting more days.”

“Quite frankly, I do worry about the well-being of the judges on the provincial court.”

While stress levels are growing, some judges would take on more, Williams said, “but we don’t have enough courtrooms to hear additional matters.”

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