EDITORIAL: Justice denied - This is an election issue

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Health care. Education. The Harmonized Sales Tax.

There’s no shortage of hot-button issues clamouring for government attention as a possible provincial election looms.

But there’s an even bigger elephant in the room, one that has been ailing for nearly a decade and by many accounts, is now in danger of collapsing.

B.C.’s legal system is in big trouble.

Justice Denied, the five-week Black Press investigation into the various components of the system, has revealed a precarious house of cards.

Provincial funding cuts dating back to 2003 have reduced the number of sitting judges, fuelling a trial backlog that increasingly lets criminals go free because of unconstitutional delays.

The result? More than 2,100 cases are now at risk of being tossed out of court due to waits that threaten to violate the accused’s right to be tried within a reasonable time.

Savvy defence lawyers are exploiting the dysfunction in the system to their advantage. Accused criminals – some charged with serious crimes such as impaired driving causing bodily harm – are getting away scot-free without having to face their victims or be accountable for their actions.

The considerable efforts of  police officers are being wasted, not to mention the taxpayer money used to pay them for investigations, forensic work and testimony that are all for naught once the suspect walks.

But perhaps the hardest hit are the victims – regular people  impacted by crime who have no choice but to rely on a deteriorating legal system for relief.

The verdict on the possibility of a quick fix is grim.

February’s provincial budget approved another $14.5 million in cuts to the judicial system for 2011-2012 – followed by a funding freeze for the next two years, until 2014.

This despite the fact a tax on legal services – originally created to support legal aid – funnels $145 million each year into the province’s general revenues.

It’s estimated about $25 million annually in additional funding would bring staffing levels in the court system up to the levels they were six years ago. Imagine what dedicating $145 million to the courts would do.

B.C. Attorney General Barry Penner told Black Press this week he would like to provide additional dollars, but there’s only one pot of money to support myriad public services and indeed, only one taxpayer.

That may be true. But aside from health care, one would be hard-pressed to identify an issue that cuts across all walks of life and has, directly or indirectly, affected nearly everyone.

Divorce, drug use, child custody battles, physical and sexual assaults, break-and-enters, murder, domestic violence, negligent or impaired driving, speeding, animal abuse... who hasn’t been impacted by such occurrences, or known someone who has?

If Premier Christy Clark is serious about her “Putting Families First” platform, fixing B.C.’s debilitated justice system must be among her top priorities.

Voters: When the provincial writ is dropped, make this an election issue politicians can’t ignore.

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