When it comes to getting through criminal court cases, this province has improved more than any other in the country.
According to data recently released by Statistics Canada, completed criminal court cases in Newfoundland and Labrador in 2011-12 rose two per cent from the previous year.
It was the only province to see any increase last year. Quebec remained stable, while all other provinces saw a decrease.
“I’m not surprised the stats show we’re up,” provincial Chief Judge Mark Pike told The Telegram Monday. “I actually thought it might’ve been higher, to be honest, but it’s good news.”
Court cases can be completed from either a conviction, an acquital, a withdrawal of charges by the Crown when there’s an unlikelihood of conviction, or by a judge’s decision to stay proceedings — the result of cases being unreasonably held up for too long by the prosecution.
The most common result, according to the data, is a finding of guilt.
But whatever the outcome of the cases, Pike said the higher number of processed cases in Newfoundland and Labrador has been mainly due to the focus made in recent years to improve court efficiency.
In 2008, a task force was formed at the request of then justice minister Jerome Kennedy.
Its mandate was to examine the operation of the criminal justice system in St. John’s, with particular emphasis on the processing of cases in provincial court in St. John’s, and to make practical recommendations to increase efficiency and reduce delay without compromising fundamental principles of justice.
Some of the recommendations include that police deliver evidence packages to prosecutors in less time than before, that prosecutors review cases quicker and that legal aid lawyers be assigned sooner.
“The new system has made things run much better,” said Pike, who was a member of the task force. “We are not delaying things anymore.”
A new system was also implemented for case assignment to court rooms and judges — known as the Case Assignment and Retrieval System.
Pike said the court utilization manager, who handles case scheduling, was key in implementing the new system.
Tamara Church has held the position since it was first developed in 2008. Her work has become so important she was awarded the government’s public service award of excellence in 2010.
According to the government’s website, prior to 2009, the scheduling procedure in place involved judges and their support staff working independently. It often took several months to reschedule a trial if it failed to proceed.
That created hardships for the accused, victims, witnesses and family members, as well as increased costs.
However, these days, with the court utilization manager, court calendar vacancies are filled quickly and vacant courtrooms used when needed.
But have the recent government cutbacks to the justice system hindered the court’s ability to maintain its focus on efficiency?
In all, eight positions — in clerical and administrative departments — were lost when government slashed its budget.
Pike said one judicial position will also be lost in central Newfoundland.
He said he’s decided the next retirement — which will likely be Judge Randy Whiffen in Grand Falls-Windsor — will not be replaced.
“No question — any time you have fewer people, there are challenges,” Pike said. “But that’s the sacrifice I’ve decided to make.
“We can do more with less. We have been.”
Pike is encouraged by the recent statistics and believes things will get even better.
“We’re going to try to work harder every day to find ways of improving things in our court system,” he said. “I hope the trend will continue.”