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Judge shortage paralyzes court system, resulting in delays and dismissals

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A shortage of judges throughout the country has brought the court system to a grinding halt, with long delays, backlogged cases and a growing number of instances where serious crimes are thrown out.

There were 57 federally appointed judicial vacancies across Canada to begin May, with 19 alone in Ontario.

The number of vacancies has contributed to several delays in criminal, civil and family court proceedings, resulting in lawyers and law firms pleading for the federal government to expedite the process.

"This problem could be averted if we had the judicial resources in place to hear a wide array of different matters," said Joshua Valler, a partner of Barrie-based Barriston Law.

Valler said the 2016 R. v. Jordan Supreme Court ruling mandates the Crown to bring criminally accused individuals to trial within 30 months of being charged.

However, there is no prescribed timetable for family and civil cases.

"Getting those motion dates can, in some jurisdictions, take up to a year for a relatively straightforward issue," Valler said. "That in itself causes a delay in the litigation process."

Peter Holmes knows the pain of delays all too well.

Holmes, a client of Valler, sold his Toronto home several years ago to build a new primary residence. However, a construction dispute with the builder has resulted in a civil case.

"We've been waiting for two years just to get a date," Holmes told CTV News. "Those plans went off the track with the builder, so this has really delayed my life."

Holmes has additionally racked up thousands of dollars in legal fees for a process that he has been told would have previously taken six months to a year.

That struggle is only compounded at the criminal level, where cases are being thrown out with no judges available to see them.

Since December, at least seven Superior Court criminal cases have been thrown out in Toronto due to a lack of judges.

Douglas Judson is the chair of the Federation of Ontario Law Associations and has been pushing for Ottawa to expedite federal appointments.

"It's very concerning for victims," Judson said. "It causes people to lose confidence in the justice system as a whole."

But why the backlogs exist is tricky to pinpoint, according to Judson.

He said Ottawa's appointment process is extensive.

"Our organization held a conference last week where we did hear remarks from the former minister of justice," Judson said. "Which would have appeared to suggest that the delays are not in the minister's (Minister of Justice) office."

However, six justices were appointed in Ontario earlier this month, and two additional justices were appointed in Toronto on Monday.

CTV News reached out for comment from the Department of Justice and, on Tuesday, received an email stating the vacancy rate sits at less than six percent.

The email continues in part, "Delays in the justice system have many causes. It is inaccurate – and frankly unhelpful – to blame delays on any one single factor.

Judges cannot sit without adequate provincial courtroom facilities and support staff. Trials do not proceed if prosecutors and defence lawyers are not available. Court resources and scheduling processes need to be modernized, using technology and all available tools.

As prominent judges have observed, trials are taking longer than ever before, and lawyers need to do their part to streamline and prioritize how they use court time.

All actors in the justice system and all levels of government need to work to ensure justice is timely. Our government is doing its part and will continue to do so with urgency."

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