Victims in limbo [Part 2 of Justice Denied series]

Battered by their abusers, they now grapple with delays in B.C.'s congested court system

Delays in the courts leave abused women waiting longer and facing more pressure from families to return to violent spouses.

Delays in the courts leave abused women waiting longer and facing more pressure from families to return to violent spouses.

Hateful words gradually became hurtful blows.

She endured weeks of it before summoning the strength to walk out the door and turn to the police, transition houses and courts for help.

Punjabi-speaking counsellors and police officers were supportive and she prayed for a quick resolution, knowing she would face enormous pressure from her husband’s family not to shame their son.

But months later, after numerous court adjournments, frustration and tears – but no trial – she gave up.

She went back to her abusive spouse.

Sad stories such as this are becoming more common in B.C.’s congested justice system.

Spousal assault cases are high priority and aren’t at risk of being thrown out due to excessive delays like many impaired driving cases and some other criminal prosecutions.

But advocates say the time to get to trial is getting longer.

And the wait can spawn tragic consequences.

“When it’s delayed for a long time, normally we lose our victims,” Surrey Women’s Centre program manager Maryan Majedi said. “They go back to their husbands. They get repeatedly assaulted. It’s like a revolving door.”

Domestic abuse cases are supposed to move through the courts within three months.

But in Surrey and some other B.C. centres, that time period often stretches to four or six months.

And Majedi notes that’s after time has elapsed for the police to investigate and prosecutors to approve and lay charges – often bringing the wait for a trial to a year following the assault.

Court delays are particularly difficult for South Asian women, said Manbeen Saini, a community-based victim services worker in Surrey.

“The family is wanting her to drop charges, not even understanding that she can’t do that,” Saini said, explaining that prosecutors decide to pursue legal action. “The longer it stays in the court system, the more pressure she’s going to get.”

And when battered women give up on the courts, Saini said, it’s usually forever.

“They say they’re never going to the police again,” she said. “I hear it all the time.

“So what message are we sending out? What justice is this?”

•••

Longer delays for all sorts of court proceedings are the result of cuts in the number of provincial court judges in B.C., coupled with shortages of sheriffs, clerks and other support staff.

Samiran Lakshman, president of the B.C Crown Counsel Association, calls the situation a “deliberate” and “systematic” stripping of the critical resources the justice system needs to function – a policy that increasingly exacts a human toll.

Prosecutors worry not just that abused women will go back to violent partners, but also that memories of sexually abused children will fade, their testimony will be less persuasive, and offenders will go free.

Families are also waiting longer for the courts to decide matters such as which parent will have custody of the children, finalizing divorces and setting child support payments.

“It’s heartbreaking for the parents of children in foster care,” said Kamloops family lawyer Brenda Muliner.

She represents a couple in Nelson fighting to regain custody of their children who were apprehended by child protection workers in 2007.

It took a year and a half to get a date for trial to decide permanent custody – September 2011 – by which time the kids will have been in government custody for four years.

“It’s staggering,” Muliner said. “And it’s going to get worse.”

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.’s Representative for Children and Youth, is also concerned.

“These delays are really tarnishing the reputation of our justice system for British Columbia’s families,” she said.

Child protection workers from the B.C. Ministry of Children and Family Development can knock on a door and remove children from a home based on evidence that is often disputed.

That power exists, Turpel-Lafond said, on the understanding parents have a speedy right to challenge the removal, with the courts either upholding it and issuing a temporary custody order or else returning wrongfully apprehended children.

Child protection applications are supposed to be heard within three months.

But Turpel-Lafond said the average wait in B.C. is more than four months and she’s aware of waits of eight months and longer at courts in Surrey, Chilliwack, Abbotsford, Prince George and parts of Vancouver Island.

New hearings in those areas are being scheduled in 2012 – and those are in best-case scenarios where parents quickly obtain legal aid, another major trouble spot.

“We’re dealing with a system that makes a mockery of that timeline,” Turpel-Lafond said.

“Childhood is short. It’s 988 weeks. If you spend 50 weeks waiting for a hearing because you can’t get a court date, that is just completely unacceptable.”

Families sometimes give up and move on, she said, and the child falls permanently into the custody of government.

In custody battles between parents, Turpel-Lafond said, delays mean child view reports – which guide the court on how much time kids want to spend with each parent – are often a year out of date when the hearing gets to court, by which time children’s wishes may have changed.

The need for speed may be just as important when youths are charged with crimes.

Consequences of actions simply aren’t as meaningful for young people if it takes a year or longer to get to trial, she said, calling the youth criminal justice system “remarkably backlogged.”

The victims of youth crime are often other young people, who also end up waiting longer for closure.

Provincial court judges have recently signalled family court delays have grown unacceptable and have directed a shifting of court time, which could come at the cost of criminal matters.

In other words, even more delays.

•••

Even animals are paying the price for congestion in the courts.

Family and friends of 12-year-old cancer survivor Max Rose were outraged last month when the man who shot and killed the boy’s Jack Russell terrier puppy Seymour walked away unpunished.

The case was thrown out of Campbell River court when the judge ruled the 19-month delay before the case went to trial unreasonably violated the rights of the accused.

“It’s pretty upsetting,” father Nick Rose said. “We’re getting a first-hand look at our legal system and it’s pretty pathetic.”

Animal cruelty investigators seize abused pets and charge owners in cases of maltreatment. If convicted, the law allows a potential lifetime ban on animal ownership.

But officers are often unable to stop those accused of cruelty from acquiring more animals or abusing others in their care while a case grinds through the system toward an eventual trial.

“The time in between you’re concerned about other animals that may be in their custody,” said Marcie Moriarty, the B.C. SPCA’s manager of cruelty investigations.

“These delays can literally be life and death for animals.”

jnagel@surreyleader.com

FACES OF DELAY: MATTHEW HEENAN

Matthew Heenan was crossing a downtown Kelowna street with friends after leaving a nightclub Nov. 22, 2009 when he was mowed down by a drunk driver.

The 23-year-old Coldstream, B.C. resident was pronounced dead just over an hour later.

The driver was charged last August with impaired driving causing death and causing an accident resulting in death.

Matthew’s parents, Mike and Jo Heenan, have now been told a preliminary inquiry won’t happen until March of 2012.

They’re fearful the case against their son’s accused killer will be thrown out on grounds of the unreasonable delay in getting to trial.

Even if the trial proceeds by fall of 2012, that will be more than two years since charges were laid – deep in the danger zone where judges can be compelled to agree the wait has violated the rights of the accused.

“We are desperate,” Mike Heenan said.

They have appealed directly to B.C.’s Attorney General to proceed by direct indictment, eliminating the need for a preliminary inquiry – an unusual step that would normally have to be initiated by Crown prosecutors.

So far, the accused 49-year-old West Kelowna man has spent one day in jail and had a 90-day driving suspension.

“Our dead son is relegated to a number in the system,” Heenan said, adding Matthew worked at Kal Tire and was about to retrain as an autobody technician.

“Every day this person goes without trial is an affront to our son’s life and our society,” he said.

“Every day we are reminded of our son’s death and suffer the anguish of delays and uncertainty. Where is the justice? When can we expect closure?”

 

Do you have a personal story of delay in the court system? Email jnagel@surreyleader.com

 

BY THE NUMBERS

• 47 courthouses scheduling child protection cases beyond three-month legislated standard as of mid-2010.

• 5.2-month average wait for a half-day child protection hearing.

• 44-per-cent increase in length of time to get to trial for half-day child protection cases from 2009-2010.

 

LONGEST DELAYS

(as of June 2010, from Justice Delayed report)

Child protection hearings:

• 11 months in Prince George, Vanderhoof (vs three-month standard)

• 9 months in Kelowna, Chilliwack

• 8 months in Abbotsford, Terrace, Merritt

 

Wait for next available family hearing:

• 11 months in Prince George, Sechelt

• 10 months in Abbotsford, Chilliwack

• 9 months in Surrey, Kelowna

 

JUDGES’ WARNING

“Over the last year there has been a dramatic increase in the delay and volume of uncompleted civil, family and child protection cases.”   – Sept. 2010 Justice Delayed report of the B.C. Provincial Court

 

MORE IN JUSTICE DENIED SERIES

PART 1:

Courts in crisis

Lack of sheriffs adding to court system delays

PART 2:

Victims in limbo

Faces of delay: Matthew Heenan

PART 3:

Defence on the offence

Legal aid: What happened to justice for all?

PART 4:

Policing fallout

Faces of delay: Torie and JessicaPART 5:

No cash for courts

Court disarray ‘deplorable’, NDP critic says

OPINIONS

Editorial: Justice denied – This is an election issue

Column: The many travesties of justice

Letter: No faith in justice system

Letter: ‘I read this article while my blood boiled’

Letter: Justice system isn’t working

Just Posted

An SUV sits where it crashed through the front window of the 2:18 Run store in Fairfield Plaza, after the driver appeared to lose control on Monday afternoon. (Photo by Phil Nicholls)
Driver crashes through front window of Victoria running store in Fairfield

Phil Nicholls of 2:18 Run said crash sounded like an earthquake at first

Processed sewage is still being deposited at the Hartland landfill rather than sent as biosolids to a Richmond cement plant. (Black Press Media file photo)
Biosolids at Hartland still being placed on landfill in Saanich

Richmond cement plant up and running, but CRD end product not suitable for purpose

Seismic upgrading and expansion work at Victoria High School is about a year behind due to pandemic-related factors, the Greater Victoria School District announced. (Photo by Cole Descoteau)
Victoria High School seismic work, expansion a year behind schedule

Greater Victoria School District now targeting September 2023 for reopening of historic school

Elk Lake Drive area resident Michael Blayney protests a proposed multi-building development for his Royal Oak neighbourhood, outside Saanich municipal hall on Monday (June 14). (Photo by Megan Atkins-Baker/News Staff)
Demonstrators protest 11-storey development on Elk Lake Drive in Saanich

Saanich locals gather at municipal hall to protest development, public hearing goes Tuesday

The Greater Victoria Harbour Authority is calling on Transport Canada to rescind its ban to Feb. 28, 2022 on cruise ship stops in Canada, to allow planning to begin in advance of a reopening of the cruise industry next year.
Greater Victoria Harbour Authority seeks end to federal ban on cruise ship stops in Canada

Greater Victoria Harbour Authority CEO hopes cruises will resume by 2022

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau participates in a plenary session at the G7 Summit in Carbis Bay, England on Friday June 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada donating 13M surplus COVID-19 vaccine doses to poor countries

Trudeau says the government will pay for 87 million shots to be distributed to poor countries

Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price (31) is scored on by Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Alec Martinez, not pictured, during the second period in Game 1 of an NHL hockey Stanley Cup semifinal playoff series Monday, June 14, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Habs fall 4-1 to Vegas Golden Knights in Game 1 of NHL semifinal series

Match was Montreal’s first game outside of Canada in 2021

Kelowna-Lake Country MLA Norm Letnick, assistant deputy speaker at the B.C. legislature, presides over committee discussions. The legislature is completing its delayed spring session this week, with most MLAs participating by video conference. (Hansard TV)
B.C.’s daily COVID-19 infections dip below 100 over weekend

Only 68 new cases recorded Monday, four additional deaths

Neighbours fight a small late-night bush fire with garden hoses and shovels in Cinnabar Valley on June 5. They couldn’t get help from local fire services because the fire was located in an area under B.C. Wildfire Services jurisdiction. (Photo courtesy Muriel Wells)
Neighbours on edge of Nanaimo city limits left to put out bush fire themselves

Cinnabar Valley residents tackle fire with hoses and buckets for two and a half hours

Darren Campbell’s truck (pictured) was stolen when he stopped to check on a car in a ditch on Cowichan Bay Road on Monday morning. (Facebook photo)
Vancouver Island Good Samaritan’s truck stolen in nasty trick

‘Try to be a Good Samaritan and my $20,000 truck gets stolen right under my nose’

The Kamloops Indian Residential School is photographed using a drone in Kamloops, B.C., Monday, June, 14, 2021. The remains of 215 children were discovered buried near the former school earlier this month. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Communities grapple with what to do with former residential and day schools

Some tear them down as a tool to help healing, others repurpose them as tools for moving forward

Creative handmade signs abound at the June 13 Tofino rally for old growth trees. (Nora O’Malley photo)
VIDEO: Tofino stands in solidarity for Fairy Creek Blockades

Over 150 supporters attend rally hosted by Friends of Clayoquot Sound

FILE – Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry talks about B.C.’s plan to restart the province during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, Tuesday, May 25, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. watching U.K.’s COVID struggles but don’t think province will see similar pitfalls

Studies show that one dose of vaccine is only 33 per cent effective in preventing B.1.617.2 spread

RCMP Const. Shelby Patton is shown in this undated handout photo. RCMP say that Patton was hit by an allegedly stolen truck that he had pulled over on Saturday morning in Wolseley, east of Regina. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, RCMP
Pair charged in Saskatchewan Mountie’s death make first court appearance

Const. Shelby Patton was hit by an allegedly stolen truck that he had pulled over Saturday morning

Most Read