Halifax’s RCMP forensic lab is closing in March—a move that will either make our clogged justice system more efficient, or delay it further.
Forensic labs in Regina and Winnipeg already closed in March 2014, and the Halifax lab will be the final closure of the nationwide consolidation process. Local crime investigators will now ship evidence to labs in Ottawa, Edmonton and Vancouver for analysis.
The federal government says reducing the number of labs from six to three will save an estimated $3.5 million a year, and increase efficiency. But some defense lawyers have grave concerns about the Halifax lab closure. Attorney Joel Pink believes the lab consolidation will likely increase the time it takes a criminal case to move through the justice system.
Imagine a case of impaired driving causing death, Pink says. Police take a blood sample from the accused and send it to one of the three surviving labs. The accused doesn’t have to enter a plea until after the toxicology analysis is done, which means their arraignment could be delayed. If the lab’s workload is intense as a result of the consolidation, there could be another delay. And when arraignment finally occurs, the accused can elect trial by jury, which means they are entitled to a preliminary inquiry, which takes even longer.
“The way the courts are booked now in Halifax and Dartmouth, in most courts it’s almost eight to 10 months, or a year, before you can get to a preliminary inquiry,” Pink says. By the time the case makes it to trial, it could be two years since the incident.
Every Canadian is entitled under the Charter to a trial within a reasonable time. If a trial is unreasonably delayed, the defense could argue the courts violated this right, and a judge could stay the charges.
On December 29, a Halifax judge did exactly that. Former United Church minister John Hartlen was charged with two counts of sexual assault. His trial was unreasonably delayed for three-and-a-half years, far exceeding the year-and-a-half maximum. As a result, the court of appeal judge decided Hartlen won’t stand trial.
“We’re seeing that more and more now, even without sending the results to a crime lab,” Pink says.
Another concern comes from continuity in the handling of evidence. That must be maintained or the evidence could be thrown out. The RCMP says investigators must use a courier with a tracking system, but that doesn’t completely eliminate the risk.
“Who’s to say a sample couldn’t get lost if it goes by courier?” Pink adds. Halifax defense attorney Elizabeth Buckle has similar concerns, but is cautious since she doesn’t yet know what the lab closure will mean.
“There’s a worry maybe that there might be more delay, but it really depends on whether they’re cutting positions or just reorganizing to make it more efficient,” she says. “I imagine at least during the transition that there’s going to be some delay.”
One other possible consequence of the Halifax lab closure could be an increase in forensic analysts testifying by video, due to the high cost of flying them across the country. “Some cases that are very document intensive,” Buckle says. “It’s very difficult to cross-examine a witness who’s not sitting in front of you.”
Halifax’s forensic lab has already cut its services in preparation for the closure. The lab no longer performs toxicology or firearm analysis—these exhibits are sent out of province for testing. The Halifax lab alone received 1,168 firearm exhibits and 1,231 toxicology items last year.
Pink and Buckle say they haven’t noticed a difference yet since the lab stopped accepting firearms and toxicology, but we probably won’t know the true outcome of the closure until it happens. “It would be interesting if you ask these questions again a year from now,” Buckle says.