Pre-charge screening and the court backlog: Gadhia

By Jennifer Pritchett, Associate Editor

A new report highlighting that nearly half of all criminal charges in Ontario are withdrawn or tossed before trial — a higher rate than anywhere in Canada — points to a need for systematic change, Toronto criminal lawyer Roots Gadhia says.

“I don’t know if the resources are being put in the right areas of the system,” she tells

Gadhia, principal of R. Roots Gadhia Criminal Defence Law, comments on a new study that urges reform in the way charges are laid in Ontario to deal with a bottlenecked system.

The report, which relies on data from Statistics Canada, finds significantly larger caseloads in provinces such as Ontario where police lay charges compared to jurisdictions such as British Columbia, Quebec and New Brunswick, where it’s left to Crown prosecutors to consider whether there is a reasonable prospect of conviction, reports CBC.

“Large numbers of gratuitous charges waste massive amounts of money and time,” criminologist Christopher Williams writes in the study.

“These grim processes are especially pronounced in Ontario, a province in which charging power in the hands of 26,000 police officers produces system-wide waste, inefficiencies and state-sanctioned coercion in the form of over-charging.”

His report, Crowns or Cops?: An Examination of Criminal Charging Powers in Canada, makes a case for Crown prosecutors taking over the deciding role in which matters proceed to court.

He writes that the problem is “police exhibit tendencies in the direction of charging promiscuously and illogically.”

The statistics suggest that adopting some kind of pre-charge screening could ease some of the backlogs in Ontario courts, the report says.

Gadhia says that may be true, but she questions whether the system is equipped with the resources to have Crown prosecutors available to discuss each case with police officers before a charge is laid.

“If there were senior Crowns working in the police station to highlight those matters that will fall apart, that would reduce the number of groundless charges laid,” she says. “But I honestly can’t see that happening for each person who is arrested. It would become so cumbersome. I don’t believe there are resources for that sort of system.”

Still, Gadhia notes that a certain amount of this is already happening in Toronto, for example where Crown prosecutors pre-screen before guns-and-gangs charges are laid.

She says the bail vetting office has also been helpful in streamlining cases involving accused persons awaiting a bail hearing.

“Having a senior Crown in that office has eased the backlog and moved the bail cases through the system more efficiently,” she says. “A senior Crown will look at the case and say, ‘We aren’t proceeding on these charges,’ or agree to bail without a hearing.”

Gadhia says bail court is one of the biggest causes for delay in the Ontario system.

She suggests adopting post-charge screening early in the process to ensure cases are solid enough to hold up in court.

“The resources for that are currently available in the courthouses and there are already bail-vetting Crown prosecutors,” she says. “A smart, experienced and compassionate Crown prosecutor screening the charges to ensure they pass the threshold would be highly beneficial. There are really great Crowns who do that. We just need more of it.

“And if police exercised their discretion more often and perhaps didn’t lay charges that fall apart in court that would be helpful too,” says Gadhia.

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