BC Supreme Court is facing a judge shortage that could lead to a new Abbotsford courthouse with empty courtrooms, Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson says.
“We haven’t had an increase in the size of our court since the 1990s,” Hinkson said. And, with an increase in the province’s population and corresponding demand for court services, issues are now taking longer to get addressed, he said.
Office of the Commissioner for Judicial Affairs Canada figures show BC Supreme Court has 86 judges with four vacancies. The appeal court has 14 judges and one vacancy. If supernumerary judges (those who are retired and working part-time) are included, the number rises to 122.
B.C.’s courts also deal with a large number of issues related to aboriginal treaty issues, Hinkson said. Some take 200 to 500 court days.
“Those judges aren’t available to do anything else,” Hinkson said.
The chief justice said a request is in for more judges.
The Department of Justice has approved five positions this year, appointments made to replace judges moving to other positions.
The Ministry of Attorney General said recently passed legislation awaiting Royal Assent allows for the appointment of five more new judges.
“Amending the Supreme Court Act to allow for the appointment of 95 Supreme Court judges aligns with the ministry’s mandate of improving access to justice in British Columbia,” the ministry said.
That number has yet to make its way to Ottawa but prior to that, said federal Minister of Justice and Attorney General David Lametti’s press secretary Rachel Rappaport, the vacancy rate is 2.6%.
“The minister intends on filling the remaining positions in due course,” Rappaport said.
The court’s 2019 annual report said B.C. currently has the lowest ratio of superior trial court judges to population of any province or territory in Canada.
“British Columbia’s ratio is 1:48,568, compared to 1:38,962 for the rest of Canada.
“Filling judicial vacancies would certainly assist the Court in providing more hearing times, but over the longer term, enlarging the judicial complement is also necessary,” the report said.
The BC Court of Appeal 2019 report said that court has a full complement of judges with all departures filled.
But, with a new Abbotsford courthouse due to open next year, the need for more judges is greater than ever, Hinkson said.
The $150 million, 16,500-square-metre project is planned to have 14 courtrooms, including provincial and supreme court courtrooms and rooms suitable for case conferences, restorative justice and Indigenous justice cases.
But, he said, a shortage of judge unfilled judge positions creates a problem.
“If they’re not filled, we will eventually have empty courtrooms,” he said.
The provincial court has 132 judges, up from the 126 sitting in 2010 when the court issues its report, Justice Delayed: A Report of the Provincial Court of British Columbia Concerning Judicial Resources. At that point, it had 17 fewer judges than were on the bench in 2005.
The 10-year-old report recommended the number of judges be restored to that 2005 count in the public interest.
Another issue taking judges’ time is that of self-represented litigants, generally people who cannot afford a lawyer.
“Their numbers are ever-increasing,” Hinkson said, explaining such litigants don’t understand the complexities of the system and its rules. “It takes a long time to help them solve their problems.”