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Measuring efficiency in the Canadian adult criminal court system: Criminal court workload and case processing indicators

Released: 2020-03-05

According to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, an accused person charged with an offence has the right to be tried within a reasonable time.

In 2013, following years of relative stability in adult criminal court processing, case completion rates began to fall, while court caseloads, case times and court backlogs began to increase. This situation sparked a national discussion about the efficiency of the criminal court system.

In 2016/2017, there was a record high 195,158 open cases in adult criminal court in Canada. In 2016, the Supreme Court's R. v Jordan decision set out new time limits for completing cases in criminal court and following this decision, the caseload handled by Canadian courts fell by 6% to 182,910 open cases in 2017/2018. Case completion rates rose and court backlog was reduced.

Statistics Canada has produced a series of new indicators on court workload and case processing trends, released today in the Juristat article "Measuring efficiency in the Canadian adult criminal court system: Criminal court workload and case processing indicators" and the accompanying infographic, "Adult criminal courts in Canada: Workload and case processing indicators."

Adult criminal case completion rates are rising

In the late 2000s, completion rates for Canadian adult criminal courts were often above 94%, meaning that the courts were able to complete almost as many cases in a year as were opened. In 2014/2015, completion rates started to decline and by 2015/2016 they had reached their lowest point: 90%. This means that about 10% of the court caseload was carried forward into the next year, placing added workload pressures on the courts.

In 2017/2018, the completion rate in adult criminal court was 94% overall, the second consecutive annual increase and a return to the higher rates observed prior to the Jordan decision.

Adult criminal case processing times and the number of court appearances have increased

The median length of time to complete a case was 121 days in 2017/2018, the highest level in a decade and 22 days longer than in 2012/2013.

In 2014/2015, leading up to the Jordan decision, there were 8.0 court appearances for every final decision. In 2017/2018, the number of court appearances per final decision was 8.5, up 20% compared with a decade earlier.

The increase in case completion rates in 2017/2018, combined with the longer processing times, suggests that adult criminal courts have made a concerted effort to address long-standing cases, largely in response to the Jordan decision.

Court backlog down in most provinces and territories

A Backlog Index is a calculation that can be used to measure a court's ability to keep up with its incoming caseload. If the courts are able to close more cases than were started in a given year and thereby successfully clear away some of their existing case backlog, the index value would be less than 1.0.

In 2015/2016, just prior to the Jordan decision, the national adult criminal court Backlog Index peaked at 1.11. Since then, court backlog has fallen nationally, and in six provinces and one territory. In 2017/2018, the national court Backlog Index was 1.06.

The largest decreases in the Backlog Index since 2015/2016 were in Alberta (from 1.19 to 1.04) and Newfoundland and Labrador (from 1.10 to 0.99). In contrast, the court Backlog Index in the Northwest Territories rose from 1.42 to 1.48, the highest in the country.

Chart 1  Chart 1: Adult criminal court backlog, by province and territory, 2015/2016 and 2017/2018
Adult criminal court backlog, by province and territory, 2015/2016 and 2017/2018 

Fewer court cases potentially at risk of surpassing the Jordan time limits

On any given day in adult criminal courts in 2017/2018, more than half of cases (60%) were less than six months old in every Canadian jurisdiction. Cases over one year old, which are beginning to approach the Jordan time limits, accounted for 16% of cases.

Beginning in 2011/2012, there was a gradual increase in the proportion of cases potentially at risk of exceeding the eventual limits set out by the Jordan decision. It peaked at 9.5% in 2014/2015, two years prior to the release of the Jordan decision. By 2017/2018, the share of cases potentially at risk of exceeding the Jordan limits was 6.4%, its lowest level since 2010/2011.

There have been fewer at-risk cases in every province and territory since 2015/2016. By 2017/2018, the Northwest Territories had the lowest share of cases potentially at risk of surpassing Jordan (1.7%), followed by Prince Edward Island (1.8%).

In contrast, Alberta (8.4%) had the most cases potentially at risk in 2017/2018, followed by Nova Scotia (8.3%).



  Note to readers

The data presented in this release are drawn from the Integrated Criminal Court Survey Workload Time Series (ICCS WTS) Database, which was created using data collected through the Integrated Criminal Court Survey (ICCS). The ICCS collects statistical information on adult criminal and youth court cases involving Criminal Code and other federal statute offences. Traditionally, data collected through the ICCS are organized into completed cases and provide information on work completed by the courts as well as court outcomes (decisions and sentencing).

To examine the full scope of work done by criminal courts in Canada, the ICCS WTS reorganizes the data from the adult component of the ICCS to allow for the analysis of open cases, along with completed cases, for the first time in Canada. It introduces a series of new indicators, developed in consultation with key stakeholders and intended to address questions related to the efficiency of criminal courts in Canada.

All references to cases in this analysis refer to Information cases. This differs from the case definition used in standard ICCS reporting. An Information is a formal document listing all of the offences with which an accused is charged. It can contain one charge or multiple charges; in some cases a single Information may also include multiple accused individuals. For the purpose of the workload and case processing indicators presented in this article, each Information case refers to the charge or charges listed against a single individual on a single Information.

The ICCS WTS Database allows for analysis by province/territory, court level, and offence starting in 2008/2009. Data for Quebec are not available on the ICCS WTS database until the 2015/2016 reference period and are therefore unavailable for inclusion in the overall analysis.

Products

The article "Measuring efficiency in the Canadian adult criminal court system: Criminal court workload and case processing indicators" is now available as part of the publication Juristat (Catalogue number85-002-X). The infographic "Adult criminal courts in Canada: Workload and case processing indicators," which is part of the series Statistics Canada Infographics (Catalogue number11-627-M), is also now available.

Additional data are available upon request.

Contact information

For more information, or to enquire about the concepts, methods or data quality of this release, contact us (toll-free 1-800-263-1136; 514-283-8300; STATCAN.infostats-infostats.STATCAN@canada.ca) or Media Relations (613-951-4636; STATCAN.mediahotline-ligneinfomedias.STATCAN@canada.ca).

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