The COVID-19 pandemic and the closure of in-person hearings created a severe backlog in the criminal justice system. In response to the mounting cases, the Ontario government recently announced it is investing more than $72 million over the next two years “to prioritize public safety and ensure offenders are held accountable by addressing the unprecedented backlog of criminal cases that have accumulated in the justice system as a result of the pandemic.” As the Attorney General, Doug Downey, said:
“Our government is taking extraordinary measures to prevent people accused of murder, sexual assault and other serious crimes from going free without a trial due to the exceptional pressure on the justice system caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. This new investment will support the work of prosecutors and police to hold offenders accountable and stand up for victims of crime as they seek justice.”
Criminal Case Backlog Reduction Strategy
As part of its criminal case backlog reduction strategy, the province is increasing trial capacity in the justice system until the number of outstanding cases returns to pre-pandemic levels. The Government hopes to bring down such numbers by reducing the number of cases entering the criminal justice system, seeking faster resolutions for cases already in the system, and updating processes to shorten the time it takes to move a case to trial. In order to effect these changes, the province will be undertaking a number of measures, including the following:
Updating the COVID-19 Recovery Directive
The government is updating its COVID-19 Recovery Directive (the “Directive”) for prosecutors to help address the growing backlog of criminal cases and focus resources where they believe they are most needed: in the prosecution of serious cases such as murder, sexual assault, and gun-related offences. The Directive provides a detailed framework for prosecutor’s in considering public interest factors and the impact of COVID-19 in determining which cases to prosecute. The Directive was specifically updated as of October 7, 2021, to provide the following:
The Prosecutor must review each case in accordance with the overall direction of the Manual and make principled decisions that also address the backlog of cases in the courts due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In reviewing each case, the Prosecutor must:
determine whether the prosecution is viable and appropriate, including whether it is in the public interest to proceed given the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the criminal justice system
consider all available and appropriate sanctions, consistent with public safety, to resolve cases as early as possible
make every effort possible to minimize delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, their impact on victims, witnesses and accused, and reduce the risk of cases being stayed for unreasonable delay
Improving Digital Tools
In order to reduce the criminal law case backlog, the Government further intends to improve the digital tools and information accessible to Ontario’s police and prosecutors. The Government notes that its criminal case backlog reduction strategy will build on recent provincial investments in a Digital Evidence Management program to support criminal investigations and prosecutions that must evolve to respond to increasingly advanced criminal activities. The strategy’s measures will also build on the expansion of the eIntake digital platform that has helped to speed up the process to file criminal charges. The eIntake digital platform, piloted in Barrie and Orillia in 2020, allows police officers to digitally file criminal charges to the court instead of appearing before a Justice of the Peace. It also allows Justices of the Peace to enter their decisions and sign documents digitally and request additional information from police online.
The Government intends the platform to be available in courthouses across northeastern Ontario by mid-December and provincewide by 2022, leading to a criminal justice system that is stronger and digitally connected from end-to-end.
Delivering Services Remotely
The province is also growing capacity for remote hearings across Ontario’s courts with a recent investment of $1.3 million in new technology, which includes new laptops, conference lines and doubling the number of portable digital recording devices for taking the court record remotely. Since March 2020, over 66,000 remote matters have taken place, and all hearings for in-custody accused are now handled remotely.
Information on how the Government intends to deliver more services remotely and online to increase access to justice can be found here.
Filling Judicial Vacancies
The Government is also relying on the Accelerating Access to Justice Act, 2021, assented to April 2021, as part of its strategy. The legislation proposes urgent reforms, such as a framework for filling judicial vacancies faster, in order to maximize the capacity of Ontario’s court system.
In addition to the measures noted above, the Government said it is expanding the ability of Crowns to assess bail positions quicker across Ontario. It will also ensure that victims and vulnerable individuals and communities have access to support services by increasing capacity in Ontario’s Victim/Witness Assistance Program. The Government will also be establishing an experienced team of prosecutors to conduct an intensive case review and resolution blitz of targeted offences from region to region. In sharing these measures, the Attorney General stated that they “…build on actions we have taken throughout the pandemic to keep Ontarians safe and build a more connected and resilient criminal justice system.”
The Government hopes that by employing this multi-prong approach it will reduce the unprecedented number of criminal cases currently backlogged in the system as a result of COVID-19 and create a more optimal criminal justice system that sees cases handled more efficiently and effectively.
Contact Hicks Adams in Toronto to Schedule a Free Criminal Defence Consultation
As the Government prepares to reduce its criminal law case backlog and transition certain hearings remotely, our criminal defence lawyers can advise on how best to protect your rights and ensure your case proceeds as efficiently as possible. We know how to navigate the criminal justice system and defend individuals charged with a variety of offences, including assault, historical sexual assault, sexual assault of children, and organized crime, guns and gangs. Contact Hicks Adams in downtown Toronto to discuss your options and how we may assist you. Call us at 416-975-1700 or contact us online to schedule a confidential consultation.