Opinion Column

Charging criminals should be easier


Newly appointed Justice Minister Shirley Bond's decision to appoint an external expert to review B.C.'s onerous charge approval system is welcome indeed. It was also heartening to see Victoria Police Chief Jamie Graham come out publicly in favour of the review.

As it stands in B.C. today, police do not "charge" anyone. They investigate and submit a report to Crown counsel recommending charges. The Crown then decides whether any charges will actually be laid based upon a standard that has made the bar impossibly high.

The test, supposedly used by the Crown, is not whether there is a case to answer at the bar or whether the police have established a prima facie case exists against a suspect, but rather whether there is a) a substantial likelihood of conviction and b) whether it is in the public interest to prosecute the case.

But if it were just left at that, it might seem reasonable. But it isn't.

Enter the bureaucrats.

Crown counsel reviewing files are then guided by the Charge Assessment Guidelines of the Crown Counsel Policy Manual. In that, the Crown must also consider if any of the evidence might not be admissible, what weight the courts might place upon the admissible evidence, and whether or not any viable defences might succeed.

This is where things bog down considerably. Surely, whether any defence is successful should be left up to a judge or a court comprised of a judge and jury. What we are left with is a process that doesn't serve anyone but defence lawyers and those who commit the offences.

To understand the ramifications of this, one need look no further than the evidence before the Oppal commission into the Robert Pickton investigation. Vancouver Police Department Const. Lori Shenher testified that if a woman stabbed by Pickton in the now-infamous events of 1997 had died of her injuries, as indeed she almost did, then the prosecution of the serial killer would have been a "slam-dunk."

But because she lived, the Crown counsel who reviewed the file declined to prosecute the Port Coquitlam pig farmer because the victim was "an addict" and therefore her testimony would be lacking in credibility. Essentially, the Crown was arguing and deciding on what a defence argument might be and whether or not it would succeed.

As we now know, Pickton continued killing prostitutes until his arrest in 2002.

I don't blame the Crown counsel who made the call. I do, however, blame the onerous charge approval system and the process that guides them. It is long past time that this deeply flawed component of the justice system was changed.

The system needs to work for everyone, not just lawyers.