National Post

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Monday, August 16, 1999

Criminal Code changes could mean fewer juries
Legal efficiency sought

Nahlah Ayed
The Canadian Press

OTTAWA - Criminal Code changes are in the works that would reduce the number of preliminary inquiries and jury trials used in Canada's courtrooms.

The Justice Department is preparing reforms that may soon go to cabinet for approval, with an eye to introducing legislation sometime this fall, officials say.

The proposals are meant to reduce backlogs in the criminal justice system, and maybe save time and resources in the process.

The reforms would change virtually every Criminal Code offence to give prosecutors the choice of whether to proceed by indictment or seek a summary conviction.

Currently, many offences are only indictable, meaning a charge must go through the normal, multi-step legal process, described by critics as slow and wasteful.

But the changes would make almost all offences "hybrid" -- allowing the prosecution to seek a summary conviction for less serious cases or proceed by indictment for more serious ones.

Seeking a summary conviction is a faster process that doesn't involve a jury or a preliminary inquiry and usually carries a much shorter maximum jail sentence.

Documents obtained through Access to Information indicate the changes would lead to fewer jury trials and preliminary inquiries, which would save resources and relieve backlogs in the system.

Officials also say streamlining the legal process would spare crime victims from having to testify time and again.

It would create a potential for the Crown attorney to put more offences into the summary conviction category," said Howard Bebbington, counsel to the department's criminal law policy section. "The defence of the accused would be subject to a less cumbersome procedure, a faster trial and less serious penalty."

Mr. Bebbington said the department has been looking at preliminary inquiries for some time to assess whether to maintain them or phase them out. "The difficulty with the preliminary inquiry is it takes more time and resources . . . and forces witnesses and victims to testify repeatedly."

A spokesman for the Canadian Council of Criminal Defence Lawyers says prosecutors could be tempted to proceed by summary more often under these changes.

"The enormous pressure is going to be expediency, trying to get the stuff through the system," Bill Trudell said from Toronto. "They're under a lot of pressure, they're overworked, they don't have the staff, they don't have the resources, and they're not going to drag stuff through the system."

That means fewer preliminary inquiries, and that means taking away an important part of the justice system, added Mr. Trudell. "The preliminary hearing is like the X-rays. If you want to perform an operation, you want the X-rays first, and that's how important a step it is."

Victims' groups welcome the proposal. They say victims suffer under the current criminal justice system. "Most victims want to find some kind of closure to offences early on," said Steve Sullivan of the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime. "Preliminary hearings often needlessly delay those people finding closure."

The reforms package has strong approval from the provinces and territories, said Mr. Bebbington. Several attorneys-general have urged Anne McLellan, the Justice Minister, to proceed.

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