Delays in court lead to theft, fraud charges against ex-car dealer Fredericton suspended
Delays in the New Brunswick justice system have resulted in multiple theft and fraud charges being dropped against a former Fredericton car dealer.
In a written decision March 6, Court of King’s Bench Judge Terrence Morrison stayed 25 charges against William Cornford after his defense attorney filed a motion arguing that the time between the charges being brought and the planned conclusion of his trial was unconstitutional.
It is the second time in as many months that a New Brunswick judge has stayed charges for undue delay in the court process.
Cornford, a former co-owner of W&P Auto Sales on Riverside Drive, was initially charged on July 31, 2020 and faced additional charges on November 26, 2020.
The charges included theft, fraud and making forged documents and false claims related to the deal. His planned four-week trial would have started on May 29 and ended on June 23.
However, Morrison agreed that the proposed end date would exceed the 30-month limit on the duration of the completion of a superior court case, as ruled by the Supreme Court of Canada.
Ben Reentovich, Cornford’s attorney, said the stay of the charges amounted to a “permanent stay” of the proceedings.
“It’s not a formality,” said Reentovich. “This is a fundamental right that each of us has, and … it protects us all because it encourages the system to act more efficiently.”
The judge’s battle with COVID contributed to delays
The most significant delay, detailed in Morrison’s decision, occurred when a preliminary inquest scheduled for Jan. 7, 2022, had to be postponed to March 11 this year because the judge was isolating with COVID-19 under public health guidelines had to.
Morrison said the Crown argued the circumstances were exceptional and should not count in the days being counted to reach the 30-month ceiling on suspending charges.
Morrison said he agreed the circumstances were exceptional but added that the Crown appeared not to be taking adequate steps to overcome this delay.
There is no evidence that the complexity of the case was a reasonable excuse for dragging on, he said.
“I am not satisfied that the Crown has shown this to be a particularly complex case,” Morrison wrote.
“Accordingly, the Crown has failed to rebut the presumption that the delay in this case was unreasonable.”
‘People are waiting too long for the trial’: Lawyer
On February 24, a Moncton Provincial Court judge stayed a sexual assault charge against a man after ruling he had waited too long for his trial.
At the time, Shara Munn, the president of the New Brunswick Crown Prosecutors Association, said the shortage of prosecutors had become a crisis in recent years, contributing to the delays in the justice system and eventual dismissal of prosecutions.
Reentovich said the stay of charges remains the “exception” in New Brunswick courts. However, he said there has been a recent trend of cases approaching the ceiling set by the Supreme Court of Canada.
The 2016 Supreme Court ruling set this limit at 18 months for provincial court matters and 30 months for high court matters.
“We’re pretty good at not exceeding the limit, but a lot of cases do top the limit and that’s a problem because the current limit of 18 months or 30 months … isn’t meant to be the norm,” Reentovich said.
“If you went to court today, things will be settled in a year and … I don’t think that’s in the spirit of what the Supreme Court of Canada said in R. v. Jordan said. People wait too long to rehearse.”
Choices to remain “extraordinary”.
CBC News requested an interview with Attorney General Ted Flemming about what is being done to address the issue.
In an email, Justice Department spokesman Geoffrey Downey said he could not comment on Cornford’s case because the decision is still subject to appeal and the Department is reviewing it.
Downey said decisions to stay a charge because of an unreasonable delay before the trial were very exceptional but “regrettable because everyone who has been harmed by crime deserves to have their case decided.”
“Prosecutors review every file retained for delay to ensure lessons are learned and risk is reduced going forward.”
Trial pending on other charges
Morrison’s decision this month doesn’t mean an end to Cornford’s troubles with the law.
As noted in his decision, the 25 charges dropped involved commercial victims.
Another set of charges filed last August involved individual victims and he is still on trial on those.
They cover eight fraud allegations that allegedly occurred between October 2017 and January 2020.
Five of those charges were filed jointly against Cornford and Peter Kennedy, another former co-owner of W&P Auto Sales.
Reentovich said Cornford will face a trial on those charges in November.