By Keith Fraser for The Province
Camille McAdie had her hopes up that she might finally get somewhere in her fight for child support from her former husband.
But that hope vanished when the Surrey mother of two teens and her lawyer appeared in B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver and were told that there were no judges available to hear her case.
“A lot of disappointment for sure,” McAdie, 50, says of her reaction to the news she got from Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson, who apologized to her and a number of other litigants who came before him last week. “I didn’t expect that to happen. I didn’t realize there was a shortage like that. I just was expecting that I was going to be in front of a judge.”
The adjournment was particularly frustrating for the single mom because she had to pay her lawyer to get prepared for the appearance and she had to take a day off from work to show up in court.
At the March 6 court appearance Hinkson was dealing with litigants who had had hearings scheduled for a full day. The province’s top trial court judge told McAdie and her lawyer, Philip Cote, along with the other litigants and their lawyers, to go to the court registry in case a judge became available later in the day.
“We ended up waiting all day, though, because there was some urgency to our matter,” said Cote, who added that a judicial case manager eventually adjourned the case.
Cote said that for people of modest means, such delays can be costly.
“For the average client on a day like that day, I bet it would cost them in the range of $1,500 to $2,000 for that wasted appearance. We see it all the time now.”
McAdie is one of a growing number of litigants in B.C. who are having their cases bumped from the courts because of the chronic shortage of judges. The B.C. Supreme Court, the province’s superior trial court, is short nine judges, with another seven judges expected to retire by September.
“It’s unfortunate that we don’t have a sufficient complement of judges to permit the court to accommodate the needs of the public,” Hinkson said at the March 6 appearance. “There’s nothing I can do about that unfortunately.”
Hinkson pointed to delays by the new Liberal government in Ottawa in filling the vacancies, some of which he said had been outstanding for almost a year. When the Liberals came to power, they changed the process for federal appointments of judges, looking to increase diversity on the bench. Judicial advisory committees, which vetted candidates, were scrapped and after the last round of superior-court appointments, they also scrapped approved lists of candidates.
Earlier this year, the government established new judicial committees and asked people to reapply for the vacancies.
Michael Welsh, president of the B.C. branch of the Canadian Bar Association, said he understands that about 15 applications have come in so far in B.C. But he said the new appointment process was “very time-consuming” and much more extensive than the previous process.
“My own prediction is that we’ll have no more appointments to our superior courts until towards the end of this year. It’ll worsen the backlog.”
Welsh added that the judge shortage at the B.C. Supreme Court is also an ongoing problem with the B.C. Court of Appeal and the Provincial Court, which has judges appointed by the provincial government. And he said that it’s part of a general concern about staffing shortages at the courts, including sheriffs, court clerks and registry staff.
In an email, a spokesman for the federal justice department said that B.C. was among the first group of Judicial Advisory Committees (JAC) to be reconstituted under the new process and revised mandate.
“The JACs were selected in a manner so that their membership fully reflects Canada’s diversity and as part of the reforms, the JACs’ independence was increased,” said the email from Ian McLeod, senior adviser, media relations, at the justice department.
“The B.C. JAC is currently working in an expedited manner to review the applications in order to identify highly qualified candidates for the bench. Vacant positions in British Columbia will be filled in short order.”
Asked what he meant by “short order,” McLeod said in a followup email: “While we can’t prejudge their work and the specific time required, vacancies will be filled soon.”