Two months I wrote a column about the backlogs in Revelstoke courts. On that occasion, two trials were bumped because of a crowded court schedule.
“The problem is Revelstoke just doesn’t have enough trial days,” I wrote. “While often one day is enough (this month there were no trials on Thursday), there are many instances where one day just isn’t enough. In those cases, the court system needs to be able to allot a second day for trials when required.”
The highlighted issue – court days not being used – is as big a problem as days being overbooked, but for an entirely different reason – it threatens the future of court in Revelstoke.
Justice Mark Takahashi was presiding over Revelstoke court last week. A veteran judge, he doesn’t hesitate to criticize the lawyers for their lack of organization. Last Wednesday, as the court was trying to sort out the case of a man facing the relatively minor charges of possession of stolen property under $5,000, and failure to appear. He was supposed to stand trial last Thursday, but at his trial confirmation hearing in February, lawyer Chris Johnston said he’d lost touch with his client and the trial was removed from the list.
On Wednesday, the matter was back before the court – Wagner had resurfaced, but since his trial had already been delayed, a new date would have to be set.
To be honest, I wasn’t paying too much attention until Takahashi started to speak.
“I’m concerned for Revelstoke court because we’re supposed to have a trial tomorrow but we’re not because everything fell through,” he told the court. “So, when they start sort of having these things that might or might not go to trial, that’s fine from the individual’s perspective, but from the whole perspective of trying to maintain the court list in Revelstoke, it makes it difficult.
“The way everybody’s yelling for court time, if we keep having court dates fall through at the last moment for Revelstoke, then you’re going to have fewer court dates. That concerns me because I think Revelstoke is sufficiently isolated it would be unfair to make people travel to larger centres just because they don’t have a lot of work that’s coming in up here.
“In the long term I’m concerned about that. We have court dates that are assigned to Revelstoke. It used to be we had a first appearance day and two trial dates in a month but lately its only one trial date and a first appearance day and its seems to be getting less and less.
“If there are triable issues, then lets have trials. We can’t go on with setting trial dates and not following through with them because it’s going to have a bad effect on court time being held in Revelstoke.
“I have great fears for this community as far as court is concerned.”
Empty trial days cost money. Court staff, from the clerks to the judge, still get paid, but nothing happens. There are backlogs in the court system across the province, so if administrators see court dates in Revelstoke are going unused, they might decide to take away the trial day here and move it to Salmon Arm. That means everyone involved in the case – defendants, lawyers and witnesses – would have to travel there for the trial.
Later that day, I called Chris Johnston to talk about the matter – he has been practicing in Revelstoke since the 1980s, so I figured he would have some insight into the issue.
“I agree with what he’s saying,” Johnston told me. “There’s a risk if the time is not spent, it gets taken away and put somewhere else.”
Revelstoke used to have two trial days one month and one trial day the other, but one of those days got taken away a few years ago because it wasn’t being used. Johnston said he could see another day getting taken away. “I don’t think it’s going to go anywhere right away but it’s a big expense to send the judge and all the crew up here,” he said.
It’s a difficult balance because so much can happen leading up to a trial day. Often, trial days are overbooked, which could mean some cases get bumped. Just as often, as the trail date approaches, cases are resolved because the accused pleads guilty and/or a settlement is reached. Sometimes the accused is a no-show, leading to a warrant for their arrest and a lot of people wasting their time showing up for a trial that doesn’t happen.
On a day where four half-day trials are scheduled, two can end up being resolved the day before with a stay or guilty plea, and the court day proceeds with the remaining two. Or a trial could be shorter than expected, leaving more time for others. The worst scenario is a trial getting delayed to another day.
“I think the judge was pushing was that if it’s not going to go, use some better efforts to resolve it ahead of time,” said Johnston. “If it is going to be resolved, don’t wait and leave it on the trial list then resolve it the day before trial. But that’s what lawyers are inclined to do.
“It’s settling on the courthouse step. That’s the way the legal practice works. You can ask any trial scheduler and they will tell you that’s the thing.”
There could be a whole host of problems if Revelstoke lost a trial day. As mentioned above, that would cost a lot of people a lot of time traveling to Salmon Arm. It could save the government money, but for the accused, it would likely mean much bigger legal expenses. It could mean the loss of jobs as lawyers working in Revelstoke pack up and move elsewhere where there’s more work and less travel.
A fair justice system is one that is accessible. If justice becomes too costly for people in Revelstoke, than it’s a sign of the system failing.