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Supreme Court issues pointed reminder against 'interminable delays' in system

OTTAWA — The Supreme Court of Canada has issued a stern reminder of the need for timely justice and the importance of ending the "anything goes" culture of delay that has plagued the criminal courts.

OTTAWA — The Supreme Court of Canada has issued a stern reminder of the need for timely justice and the importance of ending the "anything goes" culture of delay that has plagued the criminal courts.

The pointed declaration came Friday as the court unanimously upheld a judge's decision to halt a murder case because of excessive delay — a top-court ruling that comes long after the accused man was deported from Canada.

In 2017, a Quebec Superior Court judge ruled Sivaloganathan Thanabalasingham should not face trial for the alleged killing of his wife due to the nearly 60-month delay between his 2012 arrest and the start of proceedings.

Thanabalasingham was deported to his native Sri Lanka following his release, but arguments about halting the case continued to play out in the Canadian courts.

Last October the Quebec Court of Appeal said the Crown had not proven any errors in the trial judge's decision to stay the murder charge. The Crown then took its case to the Supreme Court.

The Charter of Rights and Freedoms says a person charged with an offence has the right to be tried within a reasonable time.

Under a framework established by the Supreme Court four years ago in a case known as Jordan, an unreasonable delay is presumed if proceedings — from the criminal charge to conclusion of a trial — exceed 18 months in provincial court, or 30 months in superior court.

In Thanabalasingham's case, the high court said, there is "no doubt" that the delay far exceeded the 30-month presumptive ceiling established in Jordan, rejecting Crown arguments about how the delay should be calculated.

"Jordan sought to put an end to an era where interminable delays were tolerated, and to the complacent, 'anything goes' culture that had grown up in the criminal justice system," the Supreme Court said.

"The clear and distinct message in Jordan was that all participants in the system are to take proactive measures at all stages of the trial process to move cases forward and bring accused persons to trial in a timely fashion."

The Crown, defence and trial judges all have a role in avoiding undue delays, the court said.

In sum, practices that were formerly commonplace or merely tolerated are "no longer compatible" with the right guaranteed by the charter — a right that takes effect "not just to the benefit of accused persons, but to the benefit of victims and society as a whole as well," the ruling said.

The high court noted the vast majority of the lengthy wait in Thanabalasingham's case stemmed from systemic delay that had reached "epidemic proportions" across many parts of the country prior to the Jordan decision.

Given this, the Supreme Court was required to consider whether it was appropriate to apply an exception for such transitional cases.

The court concluded the exception does not apply, saying the case would "certainly have qualified" for a stay under the previous framework.

—Follow @JimBronskill on Twitter

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 17, 2020.

Jim Bronskill , The Canadian Press

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