Court of Appeal Annual Report for 2009
This month the Court of Appeal has posted its Annual Report for 2009. So how is the Court of Appeal doing? In fairness, the Annual Report does not seek to answer large questions about the quality of justice. Understandably there is no attempt to assess the quality of the decisions of the Court of Appeal, a task that must be left to academics and others. This report gives the statistics on the operations of the Court of Appeal and includes general updates on the operations of the Court and the Court’s plans for the present year.
The number of appeals are down from their level of say five or ten years ago. This is consistent with the decline in the number of trials in British Columbia and elsewhere. Without doubt one of the main causes for decline in use of the courts has been the cost of legal representation. The Court is mindful of this issue. It backs the pro bono duty counsel thatappear in the civil Chambers. The report also notes that the number of civil appeals heard with at least one self-represented party more than doubled from 2008.
The financial burden of seeking redress in the courts is a well known issue for the government and for the Court but the government has not gathered specific data on these costs. Research is needed to measure the costs of litigation including appeals and to put those costs in a meaningful context, as for example by comparison to average family incomes and cost of living data. So too there should be more data gathered on the speed at which appeals are determined. The Annual Report does not report on the average length of time that it takes to have an appeal determined from beginning to end although it would seem that this data is available.
The court tracks the numbers of appeals disposed of compared to the number of new filings, and this figure hovers near 100% so that the Court is not falling behind in its work. The Annual Report also notes that decisions are handed down within six months of hearing in 84% of the civil appeals. However the longer delays may occur between the Notice of Appeal and the time of hearing.
On the criminal side, the Court has on May 14, 2010 announced a pilot project to establish a new regime to ensure that conviction and acquittal appeals are heard within one year of the filing of the notice of appeal. The pilot project has been developed in consultation with representatives of the federal and provincial Crown, defence bar and the Legal Services Society. The project is going to be monitored and feedback from those involved in the project will be obtained for consideration by the Rules Committee of the Court. Such a process provides a useful model to improve the civil side as well.
It is important to keep in mind that disputes in British Columbia are overwhelmingly resolved through negotiations. Only a very small fraction of disputes, perhaps on the order of one in a thousand disputes make it to the Court of Appeal. Although quite properly the Court’s immediate focus is on the cases before them, by far the greater influence on justice flows from the indirect effect of the Court’s judgments on other disputes. To the extent that the Court’s deliberations are predictable, principled, economical, and swift they will favour principled resolution of disputes throughout the province. Conversely where the result in court is unpredictable, or a result comes only after burdensome expense and delay, justice suffers. These realities are generally clear to all those who have had first hand experience of civil disputes in the province.
But improvement in the cost, speed, and level of public satisfaction will come only through initiatives which set specific goals and which monitor progress towards those goals, as for example with the criminal pilot project. It may be too much to expect that an Annual Report of the Court of Appeal should fulfill that function, but perhaps this could be undertaken by the government. There is no doubt that there would be a significant benefit from such an effort.