Someone’s Got to Do It

Was the Supreme Court right to change the law on the right to a speedy trial?

In my last post, I summarized the Supreme Court’s decision in R. v. Jordan, 2016 SCC 27, in which the Court, by a 5-4 majority and over the vigorous disagreement of the concurrence, held that criminals prosecutions in which a trial does not conclude by a set deadline will be presumed to breach the right to be tried within a reasonable time, protected by paragraph 11(d) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. (The deadline is of 18 months from the day charges are laid for cases that proceed without a preliminary inquiry, 30 months otherwise.) This decision, I said, raises a number of significant questions regarding constitutionality of the majority’s decision, the soundness of its approach as a matter of policy, its choice to implement this approach by judicial fiat, and the process it has followed in doing so. I addressed the first of these questions in my last post, saying that while one aspect of the majority’s decision was clearly at odds with constitutional text, I am not sure that this is true of its main feature, the fixed presumptive ceilings. Here, I address the other questions.

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I will start with the one on which I have a pretty firm view ― that which concerns the court’s decision-making process. The concurrence castigates the majority for having imposed its presumptive “ceilings” ― and thereby transformed long-standing understanding of paragraph 11(b) ― without having been asked to do so by the parties and without adversarial debate. It adds that there was limited evidence in the record about both the current state of affairs ― which the majority characterized as “a culture of delay” ― and about the potential consequences of the new approach. I think that these criticisms are justified.

There is no question that the majority’s decision is a fairly radical departure from the existing law. Indeed, the majority is clear that it wants to change the way all the actors in the criminal justice system operate, and that governments may well have to spend more to meet their new constitutional obligations. Whether or not this new departure is a good idea, and whether or not it is consistent with the Court’s constitutional role ― questions to which I will come shortly ― it should not have been taken lightly. And while I have no doubt that the majority did consider it seriously, I do not think that it has done enough. Given the magnitude of the change it was considering, and the fact that it was not canvassed by the parties in argument, the Court should, it seems to me, have re-opened the argument and invited the parties to make submissions that would have addressed its concerns. Indeed, I wonder if the Court could have invited Attorneys General, only one of whom (Alberta’s) intervened, to participate in the debate.

Alternatively, the Court could have decided the case on the basis of the existing framework (perhaps modified as suggested by the concurrence), and suggested ― in its reasons ― that it would, in a future case, be willing to entertain submissions on whether that framework should be overhauled in the future. This would of course have delayed the implementation of any proposed changes, but it would also have allowed for any decision on whether these changes are a good idea to be made on the basis of a record put together and tested by the parties, and not only of the majority’s own limited research.

Speaking of the the research, Michael Spratt points out that the majority “did not do what every elementary school student is taught to do — show his or her work.” He calls the majority’s framework “a product of judicial alchemy and … entirely unprincipled.” I would not go this far, but an opinion that doesn’t show its authors’ work makes them vulnerable to such charges. As I said here after the Court’s decision in Carter v. Canada (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 5, [2015] 1 S.C.R. 331, “I am happy to assume that the Court did its work, but others may not be, and neither they nor I should have to take that on faith.” Sure, the reasons in Jordan are very long, but the majority could have produced some sort of annex to explain the results of its research much better than it has done. It is a question of transparency, and arguably even simple respect for the public over which the Court is exercising a considerable power.

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Put these (significant) concerns about process to one side, and the question whether the majority was right to decide the case the way it did gets much trickier. Admittedly, I am not especially well qualified to answer it, so take what follows with a generous helping of salt. And admittedly, more qualified people have been quite critical of the majority decision in Jordan. Mr. Spratt is especially scathing, arguing that “[t]he Supreme Court’s latest decision pays lip service to the constitution while doing little to improve the pace of Canadian justice.” In a very well argued interview with Jim Brown, on the CBC Radio’s The 180, my friend Joanna Baron has defended “incrementalism,” in preference to the majority’s approach that risks allowing too much time for trials in provincial courts, and not enough in the superior courts. Lauren Heuser, in a National Post op-ed, calls “the ceiling on trial times … worryingly firm,” especially in that it prevents courts from making exceptions on account of the “the depravity of an offence.” She writes that “[m]ore than a few people will be uncomfortable when suspected perpetrators of serious crimes walk free on perceived legal technicalities.”

Ms. Heuser’s suggestion, at least, is easy enough to dispose of. The Charter does not speak of “a right to be tried within a reasonable time, except for those accused of depraved offences.” The Jordan majority is quite right to say that only the complexity of the legal or factual issues, rather than the gravity of the charge, can justify a prosecution taking longer to conclude. Those who think otherwise need to amend the constitution.

But the underlying critique ― that (relatively) firm ceilings are not an appropriate response to the problem of delay due to the infinite variety of the cases to which they will be applied is serious. I do not know nearly enough to reject it. But I would like to raise a question for those who endorse it. It is, quite simply this: what makes you think that a few tweaks to an approach that appears to have thoroughly failed are enough? Ms. Heuser writes that “[w]hile one can question whether this ruling was the best way to light a fire under Canada’s court system, few would dispute that a fire needed to be lit.” The Jordan concurrence does not seem to address the majority’s claim that the system suffers from a “culture of delay” directly ― which seems like a concession. The concurrence does argue that the majority’s radical approach is unnecessary, because the case isn’t even a close one under the old one, at least as modified in its opinion. But there remains the fact that both the trial court and the unanimous Cour of Appeal thought that the delay which the concurrence thinks is clearly unconstitutional was just all right. I share Ms. Baron’s general preference for incrementalism, but I’m not convinced that the time for incrementalism on this issue has not run out.

Now, that doesn’t mean that what the Supreme Court did was right. Just because something must be done, and x is something, it doesn’t follow that x must be done. But what other options were there? Mr. Spratt agrees that “[c]hange is indeed needed,” but insists that “we should hold little hope that a cynical judgment from the Supreme Court will change anything.” Well, maybe ― though I think it’s unfair to describe the majority opinion in Jordan as “cynical,” despite its flaws, and would be unfair even the majority is ultimately wrong. But while it is easy enough for a blogging defence lawyer to rail against the practices of police and prosecutors, and the policies of governments, and accuse the courts of complicity, such tirades, even if justified, hardly answer the question of what a court ought to do when it does recognize the existence of a problem, even if belatedly.

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Sometimes, though, the answer to the question of what one is to do even in the face of a situation crying out action, is “nothing.” The courts’ role, like that of other institutions, is limited. The Jordan concurrence has suggested that numerical ceilings should only be imposed, if at all, by legislation. Ms. Baron is also of that view. The concurrence has also criticized the majority for overturning settled precedent. So has Ms. Heuser. Both these critiques amount to a contention that the majority overstepped the proper judicial remit. I am not persuaded of this.

I agree that the majority’s decision is essentially legislative. The fact that it felt the need to lay out a transitional framework underscores this ― transitional provisions are common in statutes, but almost unheard-of in judicial decisions. But that alone isn’t enough to show that it is not appropriate for a court to make such a decision. Some judicial decisions are essentially legislative: one that comes to mind is Andrews v. Grand & Toy Alberta Ltd., [1978] 2 S.C.R. 229, in which the Supreme Court imposed a hard cap on the amount of damages that can be awarded for pain and suffering in personal injury cases. Pace such legal philosophers as Ronald Dworkin and F.A. Hayek, courts do on occasion introduce new rules of law that cannot be derived in any straightforward way from either legal principles or from the practices prevalent in society, and most people seem prepared to live with these decisions. Legislatures often accept them even when they could overturn them.

So it’s not enough to say that the Court effectively made new law and thus usurped the legislatures’ prerogative. And of course, even if the legislatures had enacted statutes to impose ceilings on delays in the justice system, the courts would still have the last word on these statutes’ constitutionality. Ruling on ceilings in the context of a constitutional challenge to a statute is almost certainly better from a process standpoint, as such a case would likely feature a substantial record of the sort that was missing in Jordan. But in terms of institutional legitimacy, it would not be that different. Indeed, such a ruling would come with complications of its own, because it would confront the courts with very difficult questions under section 1 of the Charter, which are avoided when, as in Jordan, the constitutional challenge is not aimed at a rule or regulation ― most fundamentally, about whether delays that are intolerable if produced by a “culture of delay” can be saved as “reasonable limits” to the section 11(b) rights, under section 1, by a legislative ratification.

Ultimately, though, the issue is not whether, in a perfect world, the legislatures would act to limit delays, and how the courts should respond to such legislation. Rather, the issue is that legislatures have done nothing at all to remedy the problem of unconstitutional delays. If, the lack of evidence in the record notwithstanding, it is the case that delays are endemic, and that there is a “culture of delay” ― which no one denies ― the issue is the existence of widespread and ongoing violations of the constitutional rights of thousands of people. These violations have to be remedied. Sure, it’s not the courts’ job to pursue policy objectives to which the elected officials fail to attend. But we’re not talking about mere policy here. Sure, courts should beware of disregarding procedural constraints because doing so undermines the Rule law. But doesn’t systematic disregard for the constitution undermine the Rule of Law too? If the governments will not bring themselves in conformity with their constitutional obligations, shouldn’t the courts try to make them? And if the courts do not, who will?

* * *

For all that, I am not certain that the Supreme Court got Jordan right. Its interpretation of the Charter is not beyond question; its procedural careless is disturbing; its chosen solution to what is admittedly a grave problem may be a bad one; and perhaps, all things considered, it should not have endeavoured to do more than mitigate that problem’s worst manifestations. But it is far from clear that this is so. There is more to be said in defence of the majority opinion in Jordan than most observers seem to think. Getting the government to comply with constitutional obligations is hard ― but someone’s got to do it.

Keeping Time, Time, Time

The Supreme Court changes the meaning of the right to be tried within a reasonable time

A couple of weeks ago, the Supreme Court issued a very important, and fairly radical, decision on the “right … to be tried within a reasonable time,” which paragraph 11(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms grants to “any person charged with an offence.” In R. v. Jordan, 2016 SCC 27, a divided Court overturned precedent and introduced presumptive caps on the amount of time that can elapse before a trial no longer takes place “within a reasonable time.” This decision raises significant questions about the judicial role, especially in the face of inaction by other branches of government.

Mr. Jordan, along with a number of others, had been charged with multiple drug offences. His trial concluded a little over four years later, two months of which he spent in prison, and the rest under restrictive bail conditions. The trial judge found that while Mr. Jordan was responsible for four months of that delay, the prosecution was responsible for two more, while the rest ― more than two and a half years ― “was attributable to institutional delay” [15]. However neither the trial judge nor the Court of Appeal accepted Mr. Jordan’s argument that the delay was an infringement of his rights under par. 11(b) of the Charter.  This was notably so because Mr. Jordan was facing other charges and serving a separate sentence, with conditions more or less equivalent to those of his bail, while waiting for his trial, meaning that his liberty would have been restricted even without the delay in this case.

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The majority opinion, co-written by Justices Moldaver, Karakatsanis, and Brown, with whom Justices Abella and Côté concur, treats Mr. Jordan’s case as symptomatic of “a culture of delay and complacency towards it” [29]. The existing rules for the application of par. 11(b), which involved assessing the reasonableness of the delay in a given case in light of its length, causes, and impact on the accused are too complicated and vague, causing “its application [to be] highly unpredictable” [32] and subjective. A focus on the prejudice the delay causes to the accused misses some of the less tangible harms delay produces, not least those to the administration of justice as a whole, and devalues the right to a speedy trial. Finally, the existing rules are “designed not to prevent delay, but only to redress (or not redress) it” [35]. The “culture of delay” must change,

[a]nd, along with other participants in the justice system, this Court has a role to play in changing [it] and facilitating a more efficient criminal justice system, thereby protecting the right to trial within a reasonable time. [45]

The way in which the majority wants to play that role is by changing the applicable rules. As mentioned at the outset, the majority opinion introduces

ceiling[s] beyond which delay is presumptively unreasonable. The presumptive ceiling is set at 18 months for cases going to trial in the provincial court, and at 30 months for cases going to trial in the superior court (or cases going to trial in the provincial court after a preliminary inquiry), [46]

excluding any delay for caused or waived by the defence. The Crown can still show that exceptional circumstances outside of its control have arisen and that they explain ― and excuse ― a case taking longer than these timeframes, but unless it does so, a stay of proceedings will be the automatic consequence of such delay. Meanwhile, an accused will be able to show that delay below these ceilings is unconstitutionally unreasonable, but to do so they will need to demonstrate not only that the delay is “markedly” greater than reasonable, but also that they diligently sought to have the case heard sooner. (This test is reminiscent of that which Justice Moldaver applied in the Court’s recent decision in R. v. Vassel, 2016 SCC 26.)

The majority justified its decision by asserting that

[a] presumptive ceiling is required in order to give meaningful direction to the state on its constitutional obligations and to those who play an important role in ensuring that the trial concludes within a reasonable time: court administration, the police, Crown prosecutors, accused persons and their counsel, and judges. [50]

In the majority’s view, its approach is simpler than the existing rules, and eliminates the undue focus on prejudice to the accused. The majority acknowledges that even the ceilings it imposes are “a long time to wait for justice,” but insists that they “reflect[] the realities we currently face,” [57] ― as reflected, it seems, in “a qualitative review of nearly every reported s. 11(b) appellate decision from the past 10 years, and many decisions from trial courts” [106] ― while cautioning that the Court “may have to revisit these numbers and the considerations that inform them in the future.” [57] Ultimately, the majority hopes that its approach “will help facilitate a much-needed shift in culture,” [112] including

by reminding legislators and ministers that unreasonable delay in bringing accused persons to trial is not merely contrary to the public interest: it is constitutionally impermissible, and will be treated as such. [117]

In its conclusion, the majority adds that “[g]overnment will also need to consider whether the criminal justice system (and any initiatives aimed at reducing delay) is adequately resourced.” [140]

Applying its approach (including a transitional framework for cases already in the system prior to its ruling) to the facts of Mr. Jordan’s case, the majority finds that the delays that afflicted it were unreasonable. In the process, it castigates the Crown for not having had a plan for bringing the matter to trial expeditiously, and for doing “too little, too late” when it became aware of the problem.

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The Chief Justice and Justices Cromwell, Wagner, and Gascon do not disagree with this conclusion. They too are of the view that the delay in this case was unreasonable. However, Justice Cromwell’s concurring opinion is sharply critical of the majority’s approach to par. 11(b), which it calls “both unwarranted and unwise.” [254] While it accepts that some revisions to the current framework are in order, it rejects the imposition of fixed ceilings on acceptable delays.

Drew Yewchuk summarizes the concurrence’s approach and exposes some difficulties with it in a post at ABlawg. Here I will briefly sum up Justice Cromwell’s critique of the majority opinion. Justice Cromwell argues that the majority’s approach will not be as simple to apply as the majority hopes, because “[t]he complexity inherent in determining unreasonable delay has been moved into deciding whether to ‘rebut’ the presumption that a delay is unreasonable if it exceeds the ceiling in particular cases.” [254]

As a matter of principle, the reasonableness of pre-trial delay “cannot be captured by a number; the ceilings substitute a right for ‘trial under the ceiling[s]’ … for the constitutional right to be tried within a reasonable time.” [147] Indeed,

The proposed judicially created “ceilings” largely uncouple the right to be tried within a reasonable time from the concept of reasonableness which is the core of the right. The bedrock constitutional requirement of reasonableness in each particular case is replaced with a fixed ceiling and is thus converted into a requirement to comply with a judicially legislated metric. This is inconsistent with the purpose of the right, which after all, is to guarantee trial within a reasonable time. Reducing “reasonableness” to a judicially created ceiling, which applies regardless of context, does not achieve this purpose. [263]

No foreign jurisdiction imposes numerical guidelines for speedy trials either. As for the majority’s approach to cases where trial is completed with the 18- or 30-month limit, it is “a judicially created diminishment of a constitutional right, and one for which there is no justification.” [264]

Each case must be decided separately, based on its own circumstances ― including, to some (limited) extent the prejudice to the accused, as well as society’s interest in the prosecution. The creation of definite ceilings is a legislative task, and it should be accomplished, if at all, by legislation. Besides, there is no evidence to support the majority’s approach, and it was neither put forward by any of the parties nor “the subject of adversarial debate.” [147] Nor was the majority’s assessment of the jurisprudence subject to scrutiny by the parties. The impact of its decision is unknown, but “[f]or the vast majority of cases, the ceilings are so high that they risk being meaningless,” thus “feed[ing] … rather than eliminat[ing]” [276] the culture of delay that the majority is concerned about, while for a small but significant minority, the ceilings risk proving too rigid, leading to stays being entered in the most important prosecutions.  

* * *

There are many questions to be asked about this case. They concern the constitutionality of the majority’s decision, the soundness of its approach as a matter of policy, its choice to implement this approach by judicial fiat, and the process it has followed in doing so. Since this post is already very long, I will only briefly address the first one here, and put off the other three to a separate discussion, which I hope will follow… in a reasonable time.

What I mean by the constitutionality of the majority’s decision is its consistency with the Charter’s text. The concurrence effectively argues that the constitutional text requires treating reasonableness as a standard and prohibits translating it into a bright-line rule. (Notice, though, that Justice Cromwell doesn’t quite put the point in this way: he says that the majority’s approach is inconsistent with “purpose of the right” ― consistently with the Supreme Court’s tendency to treat constitutional text as secondary, at best, to the “purposes” it is deemed to implement.) The majority, it seems to me does not make much of an effort to address this argument.

I am not sure who is right, to be honest. The idea of reasonableness does indeed normally refer to a standard, not a rule. But ― precisely for that reason ― the constitutional text that entrenches this standard calls for judicial elaboration or, as modern originalists would say, construction. In other words, the constitutional text itself does not give answers to the questions that arise in the course of adjudication. It must be supplemented by judicially-developed doctrines. The question is whether the courts can make numerical rules part of their doctrines. (And it really is only part; the majority is probably right to say that the concurrence somewhat overstates the degree to which the test a numerical one.) Or is it simply inconsistent with the meaning “reasonableness”? Again, I am not sure, but I do not think that the matter is as clear as the concurrence suggests. The fact that reasonableness requirements have not been construed in this way so far, in Canada or abroad, is significant, but hardly dispositive. It really is too bad that the majority does not address this issue.

In my view, however, the concurrence is pretty clearly right that the majority’s approach to cases that fall below its ceilings is a departure from constitution text. The text provides a right “to be tried within a reasonable time” ― not a right “to be tried within a time that is not markedly unreasonable provided that one has been diligent.” Presumably the majority introduce these additional requirements in order to incentivize defence counsel to contribute to the cultural change which it seeks. But while understandable, this motivation cannot justify an obvious inconsistency with the constitutional text.

That said, the issues of whether there can and ought to be a “ceiling” above which the burden of proof shifts to the Crown, and just what ought to happen below that ceiling, are distinct. It may be that the majority is right about the first even if it is wrong about the second.

All right. That’s quite unreasonable already ― for now.