VICTORIA - British Columbia's justice system is in crisis and the issue must be pushed to the top of the agenda for the spring election campaign, says a national organization representing the legal community.
The B.C. branch of the Canadian Bar Association released a campaign platform document Tuesday, saying the governing Liberals and the Opposition New Democrats must consider changes before voters head to the polls in May.
B.C. association spokeswoman Kerry Simmons said more than $113 million in funding cuts since 2002 have crippled the legal system.
"We are still in a crisis, which is why justice needs to have attention during this campaign," she said. "We need to see some changes. We started to see some of those changes being recommended and looked at through the white paper that's been put together, but again, things need to happen more quickly."
Simmons said British Columbians want fewer court delays and are frustrated that some criminal cases are tossed out of court due to lengthy delays.
"Not a day goes by when you don't hear a story or read a story where people are asking questions or raising concerns about the justice system," she said. "This document says, here are some things we can do."
Justice Minister Shirley Bond said she recently met with Simmons and that the government shares her goals for an effective, timely justice system for families and communities.
"I support any dialogue that leads to better awareness and understanding of issues in the justice system," Bond said in a statement, adding the government has made progress reducing delays in the justice system.
Nine new judges were appointed to ease caseload pressures and two court backlog reduction projects are underway. A government-commissioned report on the criminal justice system was also released last August by lawyer Geoffrey Cowper.
Bond's said in the statement that the government is reducing court delays by moving some cases out of courtrooms. She said the Family Law Act encourages families to solve disputes outside the courtroom.
The bar association's 25-page report, "An Agenda for Justice," says British Columbians want a justice system that delivers family stability, community security, business certainty and public accountability.
"An effective justice system is one that actively supports the ability of families, communities and businesses to evolve and thrive," it said. "People want practical laws to govern their affairs and fast, effective resolution of legal conflicts that interfere with their lives and businesses."
Simmons said the B.C. justice system is not meeting the needs of British Columbians when child custody delays can amount to more than half of a child's life and charges against alleged criminals are dropped due to court backlog delays.
She said that while the bar association endorses much of the initiatives recommended in last year's government-commissioned review, many of the initiatives focused on long-term plans to improve justice system efficiency.
In its report, the bar association endorsed recommendations by the Legal Services Society to spend $4.9 million to expand duty counsel, enhance family advice and improve access to aboriginal services.
The report also supported an $18-million increase to the Legal Services Society budget to bring B.C. legal aid funding up to the national average.
B.C. currently stands in 10th spot in Canada on legal aid spending per capita, the report said.
Opposition New Democrat justice critic Leonard Krog said justice issues deserve focus during the election campaign but there's no guarantee they will dominate it.
"The recommendations of the Canadian Bar Association are a very important wish list, but I don't think they are going to be delivered in one Christmas," he said. "Even if we win."