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Constitutional Law - Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms - Legal rights - On being charged with an offence - To be tried within a reasonable time

Thursday, August 25, 2016 @ 8:00 PM  

Appeal by the Crown from a judgment of the Ontario Court of Appeal setting aside the judgment of the Superior Court of Ontario and ordering a stay of proceedings. Williamson was charged in January 2009 with historical sexual offences against a minor. His trial ended in December 2011. The delay between the charges and the end of trial was approximately 35.5 months. Williamson did not waive any of this delay, and was the sole cause of only one and a half months of it. The other 34 months of the delay was attributable to the Crown. The trial judge heard the s. 11(b) Charter application several months before the jury trial was scheduled to begin. He determined that the total length of delay from the time of the charges to the anticipated end of the trial was 35 months. The trial judge rejected Mr. Williamson’s assertion that he had suffered actual prejudice as a result of the delay. The trial judge ultimately found that Williamson had not proved an infringement of his s. 11(b) right, and he declined to enter a stay. Williamson was subsequently convicted of buggery, indecent assault, and gross indecency. Williamson appealed his convictions and the decision denying a stay. The Court of Appeal agreed with the trial judge that Mr. Williamson did not establish any actual prejudice. The Court of Appeal nevertheless held that the trial judge erred in refusing a stay since the inferred prejudice was significant and the institutional delay exceeded the guidelines in R. v. Morin. The prosecution was “straightforward”, not complex, and the defence had been diligent in attempting to move the matter to trial quickly. Williamson’s interest in a trial within a reasonable time outweighed society’s interest in having the matter tried on its merits, and therefore the Court of Appeal entered a stay of proceedings. This case was heard at the same time as the companion appeal in Jordan. The new framework for assessing whether there had been a breach of s. 11(b) of the Charter that was outlined in Jordan, including its transitional features, was applied in this case to determine whether Williamson’s right to be tried within a reasonable time was infringed.

HELD: Appeal dismissed. The first step in deciding a s. 11(b) application was to ascertain the total length of time between the charge and the actual or anticipated end of trial. Mr. Williamson was charged on January 7, 2009, and his trial was completed on December 20, 2011. The total delay was approximately 35.5 months. The defence was responsible for a six week portion of the delay. This was still above the 30-month ceiling established in Jordan for cases going to trial in the Superior Court. The delay was therefore presumptively unreasonable. The Crown bore the onus of showing that the delay was reasonable, having regard to the presence of exceptional circumstances. Since Williamson was charged before the release of Jordan, the transitional exceptional circumstance had to be considered. The transitional exceptional circumstance applied if the Crown satisfied the court that the time the case had taken was justified based on the previous legal framework upon which the parties reasonably relied. Although this was a close case, the transitional exceptional circumstance did not apply and, therefore, the delay was unreasonable. First, the record did not disclose any delay caused by discrete, exceptional circumstances in this case, and the case did not remotely qualify as exceptionally complex. Second, the 25-month institutional delay exceeded the upper end of the Morin guidelines by roughly seven months. Third, the Crown’s lack of initiative was in contrast to Williamson’s repeated efforts to expedite the proceedings. The crimes committed by Williamson were very serious, but the balance weighed in favour of his interests in a trial within a reasonable time, over the societal interest in a trial on the merits. Whether the pre-Jordan test was applied or the new framework, the delay was unreasonable. At nearly three years, this relatively straightforward case took far longer than it reasonably should have. The Court of Appeal did not err in entering a stay of proceedings.