November 11, 2016 Print

There is a clear and distinct divergence between the terms “legal system” and “justice system” in Canada. The Macdonald-Laurier Institute (MLI) recently published its first “Report Card on the Criminal Justice System” to examine what it sees as a “justice deficit” in Canada. MLI warns of “a large and growing gap between the aspirations of the criminal justice system and its actual performance,” and its report card is an attempt to catalyze change in the system.

“As the Supreme Court has identified when ruling on a case that took 48 months to complete, Canada’s justice system is faced by widespread ‘complacency towards delay,’” said David Watson, managing editor and communications director for MLI. “This has the effect of re-victimizing the victims over intolerably long periods, and infringes on the rights of the accused to a prompt trial. Our legal system depends on the confidence of Canadians, and it seemed to us that trust is fraying.”

MLI analyzed each of the Canadian provinces and territories, grading them on five separate criteria: public safety, support for victims, cost and resources, fairness and access, and efficiency. Prince Edward Island earned the highest marks, with a B+ overall score. The Northwest Territories, Manitoba, and Yukon ranked at the bottom of the report card, with all three earning overall scores of C.

“We created a system of grading the provinces and territories on their criminal justice systems, with dozens of metrics including perceptions of police, rates of Aboriginal incarceration, crime rates, and length of trials,” Watson said. “We also analyzed national statistics. What we found is that there is a ‘justice deficit’ in Canada, but also that there was great variation on the performance of justice systems across the country.”

Among its key findings, the report card observes that the criminal justice system in Canada is so sluggish, inefficient, and costly that it threatens the rights of both accusers and accused. For example, compensatory damages for victims are terribly uncommon in Canada — less than 1 percent of cases in Quebec, Manitoba, and British Columbia order compensation to the victims from offenders. Aboriginal incarceration is also disproportionately high compared to the general population within every jurisdiction of Canada, and police are held in higher regard in the Atlantic provinces than in the Western provinces. Ontario in particular has struggled in its administration of justice, with a 43.1 percent average of its charges stayed or withdrawn, roughly 35 points higher than in Quebec. Another discrepancy in Ontario is that 55.3 percent on average of accused persons actually are found guilty, much lower than in other provinces.

MLI’s report card took Canada by storm, garnering 2,000 views within its first week of release and coverage throughout Canada’s media. Several print and online publications featured the report card, including the Canadian Press, the Calgary Herald, CBC News, the Winnipeg Free Press, the National Post, and Nunatsiaq News. The authors of the report card have also appeared on radio stations throughout the country to discuss their findings, including on Geoff Currier’s show on CJOB in Winnipeg. Editorials about the justice report card appeared in the Victoria Times-Colonist and the Globe and Mail.

Many provincial politicians and officials responded to the findings of the justice report card, including in Manitoba, Alberta, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador. Officials representing Nunavut, Yukon, and the Northwest Territories also weighed in on the results.

“Our report has shone a bright light on this situation, making headline news across the country,” Watson said. “Several provincial and territorial justice ministers were compelled to respond, and some have promised reviews or reforms. The topic was raised at a meeting of federal, provincial and territorial justice ministers last month. It will require co-operation by all levels of government to begin to address these systemic issues. We feel we’ve made a real contribution to this process. And we hope to continue the strong work of our experts like Benjamin Perrin, Richard Audas and Scott Newark in this field. We are just getting started.”