Legal system on trial in New Westminster

Systemic, structural reforms have not kept pace with other advances over the last century

Ian Mulgrew
Vancouver Sun

Monday, January 22, 2007

The Canadian legal system goes on trial today in a high-security courtroom in New Westminster.

Officially the case is known as Regina versus Robert William Pickton, but make no mistake about it -- the guilt or innocence of the 57-year-old pig farmer is not the only question to be answered.

It has been almost five years to the day that the scraggly-haired, unkempt man was arrested by police and accused of slaying many, many women who for the most part lived and worked the streets of the blighted Downtown Eastside.

Justice James Williams decided last year that to consider more than an initial six counts of first-degree murder would be too complicated, too onerous and too much for any jury.

Who could disagree? Still, that there is even a need to sever charges flags the presence of other more problematic and fundamental judicial issues that permeate these criminal proceedings.

As more and more legal minds have pointed out -- Canada's legal system has not changed significantly from its 19th-century roots, and is hobbled in its ability to handle 21st-century crime.

This case brings it all to the fore -- only a panoply of publication bans covering the Pickton case has prevented an honest and open discussion of how the anachronisms and outdated legal culture have produced such a perverse process.

Any 19th-century doctor dropped into a modern hospital would be at sea and a danger to patients, given the changes in diagnostic and treatment techniques that have occurred in modern times.

A 19th-century lawyer, however, would be at home helping the defence or the prosecution in Courtroom 102 at the Pickton trial.

Systemic and structural reforms in the legal world have not kept pace with other social, cultural and scientific advances over the last century.

A murder trial even half a century ago rarely took more than two weeks.

Today a common assault trial can take that long.

Constitutional precedents in the past quarter-century that dictate process, the burgeoning breadth and depth of scientific and expert evidence, the kind of criminal pathology that courts now confront, all add up to a very different universe.

Even the most banal murder trial has become a marathon.

It is estimated that the presentation of tens of thousands of exhibits and the testimony of hundreds of witnesses at Pickton's trial will take a year, probably more.

The mind boggles at jurors being able to process and synthesize such a library of information and detail, much less survive the tedium of its presentation.

There are many other issues, though, arising as a result of this most complicated and most difficult of prosecutions.

Mega-trials such as this have in effect created a two-tiered legal-aid system.

If you are charged with a run-of-the-mill offence, you may qualify for legal aid -- usually enough to barely pay a lawyer fresh out of school and wet behind the ears.

Pickton has a battery of the Lower Mainland's top criminal lawyers mounting his defence.

Already the costs to the public purse (for Crown, defence and the extensive investigation) are over $100 million and rival the controversial 18-month Air India trial for transferring money from taxpayers into the pockets of lawyers, experts, police and court workers.

Blow up airlines, murder a dozen people, organize a massive drug importation scam, join the Mafia, and the public will pay for the best lawyers even if it takes millions to eventually put you in jail.

But do something more ordinary such as stab someone in a bar fight and require legal aid, well, you need to find a lawyer who'll work for basically pin money.

Even blind justice can see that we have reached a crisis.

This is not only the trial of Robert William Pickton, it is a trial of the Canadian legal system. And the eyes of the world are upon it.

What happens in New Westminster over the coming months will reverberate for decades to come -- not because the evidence rivals a horror movie, as the judge said, but because the process does.

Pickton on Trial

 The Vancouver Sun 2007

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