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Legal group calls for more services

The B.C. branch of the Canadian Bar Association released a report last week calling for more judges, more court services staff, more legal aid money and more mental health services.

Kerry Simmons, president of the Canadian Bar Association B.C. branch, released the report at a news conference in Victoria last week. Simmons said the association wants to put justice issues on the agenda for the May provincial election, and it has been received with interest by the B.C. Liberal Party and NDP.

The bar association, representing 6,900 B.C. judges, lawyers and law students, is seeking a long wish list of reforms, including long-standing demands for legal aid funding for family court disputes and a return to the 2005 level of staffing for provincial court judges.

The B.C. government announced the hiring of nine new judges a year ago, and Attorney General Shirley Bond also launched a review of the court system. Geoffrey Cowper, former chairman of B.C.’s Legal Services Society, was assigned to examine why the court system was getting slower despite 13,000 fewer new provincial criminal cases than it handled in 2002.

Cowper concluded the problem is partly because there are incentives for defence lawyers to delay cases, and a “culture of delay” that resists change.

“During the review there was a general sense that judges and lawyers have their own, insulated sense of what constitutes timeliness and responsiveness,” Cowper wrote.

He also found there is an average of seven appearances by the accused in a criminal case before it goes to trial.

Asked about those problems, Simmons said there are pilot projects underway to expand the use of video conferencing in courts. Judges from out of town can preside over simpler procedures, such as bail or remand hearings.

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