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Date de parution : 2019-11-26
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Date de parution : 2019-11-21

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Preliminary hearings dropped in effort to speed up courts; lawyers say it will have opposite effect

Inside a courtroom at the Calgary Courts Centre. POSTMEDIA ARCHIVES


Preliminary inquiries for a majority of criminal offences in Canada are going the way of the dodo bird.

As of Thursday, only those facing a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison or longer will be eligible for a preliminary inquiry, a legal proceeding in which a judge determines whether there is enough evidence to send a case to trial. Under the new federal legislation, preliminary hearings will not be held for many serious charges, such as sexual assault, assault with a weapon, major theft and most firearms offences.

The amendment to the Criminal Code is intended to reduce court delays, but lawyers on both sides of the criminal bar in Calgary said it may have the opposite effect.

“We think it’s going to have the reverse effect than what was intended,” said Ian Savage, president of the Criminal Defence Lawyers’ Association.

“It’s not going to save time, it’s going to increase delays in the court system.”

Savage said the hearings, which tend to be much shorter than trials because the Crown doesn’t have to call all its witnesses and defence lawyers focus on narrower issues, often result in either guilty pleas or charges being dropped.

“Cases (which might otherwise be resolved) will unnecessarily push forward to trial,” Savage said.

And without preliminary inquiries, more cases will be headed to Court of Queen’s Bench, where resources are stretched more than in provincial court.

Rosalind Greenwood, a vice-president with the Alberta Crown Attorneys’ Association, echoed Savage’s comments.

Greenwood said her organization presented arguments to a Senate committee considering the legislation, expressing their opinion the legislation wouldn’t have its desired effect.

“In our submissions we . . . highlighted that there are many benefits to preliminary inquiries, including that it can narrow issues at trial,” she said.

Not only can they trigger resolution talks, but they have other benefits, Greenwood said.

“Preliminary inquiries can also be really helpful for the Crown because it can highlight difficulties with certain evidence, which you can resolve before trial.”

She said they also noted in their Senate brief that in 2014-15 preliminary hearings were only held in three per cent of all criminal cases.

“If the intended effect is to speed up trials, we don’t expect it’s going to have that effect . . . because they’re a very low percentage,” Greenwood said.

Instead, Parliament should focus on funding the system.

“What is most urgently needed by the criminal justice system are more resources, not only for the courts, but for the prosecution services and Legal Aid.”