Only serious cases warrant court's time: justice minister

Alberta Justice Minister Jonathan Denis wants an end to preliminary hearings in all but the most serious criminal cases, suggesting they are a waste of the court's time and money.

"Our position is that preliminary inquiries should only be available in the most serious cases, such as murder," he said Thursday. "I'm concerned with whether it's an efficient use of the court's time and I'm also concerned whether it may have the inadvertent effect of victimizing some victims and families twice. We always have to have victims' concerns top of mind in these cases."

Denis said he raised the issue earlier this week in Regina during a meeting of federal and province justice ministers. He said many of his counterparts showed support for the idea,

Denis said the original intent of preliminary inquiries was to give the defence an opportunity to hear the Crown's evidence. But such hearings may now be unnecessary since the justice system has mandatory disclosure in place, which compels prosecutors to reveal their evidence to the accused in advance of court proceedings, he said.

Defence lawyers met the idea with disdain.

"This is nothing more than a rush to justice and an attack on citizens' constitutional right to full answer and defence," said D'Arcy Depoe, president of the Criminal Trial Lawyers' Association.

Depoe said that while disclosure is important, it doesn't measure up to what can be revealed in-person at a preliminary hearing where a one-page written statement can turn into hours of detailed evidence. "There's no better way to test a witness's credibility than getting them to tell the same story twice," he said.

Defence lawyer Tom Engel said the only possible benefit of skipping most preliminary hearings is to save the government money. Preliminary hearings are a "procedural safeguard," Engel said, and disclosure from prosecutors can often be delayed.

Recently, a mistrial was declared in a case that saw accused killer Travis Vader convicted of eight unrelated drug and firearms offences after it was learned that full disclosure was not given to his defence. Two witness statements were not provided to defence before Vader was convicted on the charges.

Alberta courts heard about 1,000 preliminary inquiries last year, about a quarter of which were for drug-related cases.

"Even if we were only able to eliminate the preliminary inquiries for drug offences, that's a significant savings of the court's time, which is a significant savings of money," Denis said .

Other issues discussed included installing mandatory minimum sentences for drivers with a blood-alcohol level above .08 who cause bodily harm or death.

"When people often see these people who have killed or maimed somebody getting off with a very low sentence, I think it brings the administration of justice into disrepute," Denis said, adding that the federal government agreed to study the issue.

Source: The Edmonton Journal


Last updated on: 2012-11-03 | Link to this post