Late in 1983, Peter Belmont, an entrepreneur in the business of supplying exotic dancers to establishments in the Toronto area, met a few business acquaintances in a local tavern. Elijah Asikov, Ralph Hussey, Samuel Gugliotta and Edward Melo, also entrepreneurs in the same business as Belmont, wanted 50% payments from him in exchange for being allowed to run a business operation.
Extortion was in the air. What Belmont’s acquaintances didn’t know was that his ‘body guard’ was actually an undercover police officer. Melo and Asikov were arrested on the spot; Gugliotta and Hussey by the end of the month.
As interesting as it is, the backstory of this case is not really that important. What makes the case of ‘Askov versus The Queen’ significant in Canadian court history is that, on October 18, 1990, the Supreme Court of Canada dismissed the case because the rights of the accused, as outlined in Section 11(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights & Freedoms, had been infringed.
Section 11(b) provides that:
11. Any person charged with an offence has the right …
(b) to be tried within a reasonable time
After their case had not been tried for three years, the accused moved that there was unreasonable delay, a move that ultimately resulted in the Supreme Court’s decision.
The initial result of the decision was the near immediate dismissal of thousands of cases across Canada that had been in the courts for similar lengths of time. The legacy of the decision is that it is now the standard by which Canadian courts judge whether an accused’s right to be tried in a reasonable time has been infringed.
Almost 25 years later, criminal courts across Canada still suffer backlogs that risk the dismissal of cases before they are tried.
- In Quebec, Luka Magnotta’s murder trial is now set for late 2014, more than two years following his arrest
- In BC, the trial of Karl Lilgert over the 2006 sinking of the Queen of the North Ferry is still in court
- In Nova Scotia, 21 charges of fraud against a lawyer, charges made in 2008, were stayed after his legal team argued that there had been an unacceptable delay
So why are Canadian Courts Still so Backlogged?
Depending on whom you ask, the reasons are varied:
- Lawyers complain that, due to new technologies, police procedures, the need for expert testimony and supporting paperwork, the increased evidence requirements means more time is needed to prepare for trial
- The legal community decries the lack of facilities, including actual courtrooms, particularly in quickly expanding suburbs
- Government critics blame the trend to budget reductions, particularly at the municipal level, for a lack of political will to increase the numbers of personnel, facilities and other infrastructure needed to help ease the backlog
While the causes might be up for debate, and the political will lacking to fix the problem, one thing is for sure: the longer we let court delays interfere with our justice system, the longer we will wait to be properly served by it.