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Nova Scotia to offer early plea bargains in bid to speed up justice system

Last Updated Feb 17, 2017 at 8:20 pm EST

Pamela Williams, chief judge of the provincial and family court and a co-chair of the Council of Parties, attends a news conference, in Halifax on Feb. 8, 2017. Nova Scotia prosecutors will offer early plea bargains in minor criminal cases in an attempt to meet Supreme Court of Canada demands for speedier trials. Chief Judge Pamela Williams told the province's criminal lawyers in a memo that a working group she chairs is launching a new effort to swiftly resolve "relatively straightforward matters" - and raised the possibility that the approach could extend to more serious offences. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

HALIFAX – Nova Scotia prosecutors will offer early plea bargains in minor criminal cases in an attempt to meet Supreme Court of Canada demands for speedier trials.

Chief Judge Pamela Williams told the province’s criminal lawyers in a memo that a working group she chairs is launching a new effort to swiftly resolve “relatively straightforward matters” — and raised the possibility that the approach could extend to more serious offences.

A Supreme Court ruling last July set out a new framework declaring that a reasonable wait for trial is 18 months for provincial court cases and 30 months for cases before superior courts.

The deadlines have left provinces scrambling to dispose of a backlog of criminal charges before the clock runs out. In a handful of cases, including one first-degree murder trial, charges have been stayed or withdrawn on the grounds that the defendant’s right to a speedy trial had been violated.

In response to the decision, Williams said a team of criminal justice officials has developed a pilot program in Halifax and Dartmouth in which prosecutors and defence lawyers try to work out a resolution early in the trial. The process aims to streamline what could be weeks of court hearings into a one-page form.

The provincial court chief judge said the approach is meant to deal with charges like breaching a court order, first-offence breathalyzer charges, minor property crime and low-level assaults.

Williams said the process could eventually apply to “mid-range cases” such as breaking and entering and more serious assaults, including those causing bodily harm, but said it wasn’t designed for cases involving sexual assault, sexual offences against children, major property loss or significant violence.

Tom Singleton, a criminal lawyer in Halifax, said Friday the project has the potential to relieve court congestion by making both parties’ positions known early in the case and leading to “creative” settlements.

Singleton said the province instituted a similar program in 2005, but the approach was later abandoned upon the retirement of the sole prosecutor responsible for reviewing every file in Halifax.

“It takes commitment,” Singleton said in an interview. “If it’s not pushed, it will fall by the wayside.”

Halifax criminal lawyer Joel Pink said such initiatives can be problematic when they depend “on the whim of the prosecutor.”

While he fully backs the idea of resolution conferences, Pink said Friday the only way to balance the scales is to get the judge involved in the process early on.

“It’s the only way to make it work,” he said. “Eighty per cent of our cases are ending up in guilty pleas, or even higher, so it would be much better to get to that result earlier than after weeks in court.”

Martin Herschorn, director of the province’s Public Prosecution Service, objects to these settlements being characterized as “plea bargains.” He sees the initiative as an extension of prosecutorial discretion, which gives Crown lawyers some degree of latitude to recommend sentences as they see fit.

As Herschorn explains it, the early resolution process is just a more transparent and efficient version of that negotiation. The Crown lawyer can propose a resolution on the low of the sentencing range, “and therein lies the incentive,” he said, buttressed by the fact that the offer expires after a certain amount of time.

The goal is to “triage” the criminal dockets, Herschorn said — to unclog the courts of the minor cases that could be resolved by filling out some basic information and checking a few boxes on a form.

Herschorn said the early-resolution initiative was spearheaded by Williams before the Supreme Court decision that found there was a “culture of complacency” in the criminal justice system.

“We take mild exception to that term in terms of Nova Scotia, because we’ve been working at these issues since well before the case,” he said.

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