Supreme Court of 'Canada sets "new framework" for whether delay unreasonable.

J was charged in December 2008 for his role in a dial‑a‑dope operation. His trial ended in February 2013. J brought an application under s. 11 (b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms , seeking a stay of proceedings due to the delay. In dismissing the application, the trial judge applied the framework set out in R. v. Morin, [1992] 1 S.C.R. 771. Ultimately, J was convicted. The Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal."

The S.C.C. held (3 judges writing joint reasons, in which 2 judges concurred; 1 judge writing reasons concurring in the result, in which 3 other judges concurred), that the appeal is allowed, the convictions set aside and a stay of proceedings entered.

Justices Moldaver, Karakatsanis and Brown wrote as follows (at paras. 1-5, 105, 112-117, 134-141):

"Timely justice is one of the hallmarks of a free and democratic society. In the criminal law context, it takes on special significance. Section 11 (b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms attests to this, in that it guarantees the right of accused persons “to be tried within a reasonable time”.

Moreover, the Canadian public expects their criminal justice system to bring accused persons to trial expeditiously. As the months following a criminal charge become years, everyone suffers. Accused persons remain in a state of uncertainty, often in pre-trial detention. Victims and their families who, in many cases, have suffered tragic losses cannot move forward with their lives. And the public, whose interest is served by promptly bringing those charged with criminal offences to trial, is justifiably frustrated by watching years pass before a trial occurs.

An efficient criminal justice system is therefore of utmost importance. The ability to provide fair trials within a reasonable time is an indicator of the health and proper functioning of the system itself. The stakes are indisputably high.

Our system, however, has come to tolerate excessive delays. The circumstances in this appeal are illustrative. Notwithstanding a delay of over four years in bringing a drug case of modest complexity to trial, both the trial judge and the Court of Appeal were of the view that the appellant was tried within a reasonable time. Their analyses are reflective of doctrinal and practical difficulties plaguing the current analytical framework governing s. 11 (b). These difficulties have fostered a culture of complacency within the system towards delay.

A change of direction is therefore required. ... we set out a new framework for applying s. 11 (b). At the centre of this new framework is a presumptive ceiling on the time it should take to bring an accused person to trial: 18 months for cases going to trial in the provincial court, and 30 months for cases going to trial in the superior court. Of course, given the contextual nature of reasonableness, the framework accounts for case-specific factors both above and below the presumptive ceiling. This framework is intended to focus the s. 11 (b) analysis on the issues that matter and encourage all participants in the criminal justice system to cooperate in achieving reasonably prompt justice, with a view to fulfilling s. 11 (b)’s important objectives.


The new framework for s. 11 (b) can be summarized as follows:

  • There is a ceiling beyond which delay becomes presumptively unreasonable. The presumptive ceiling is 18 months for cases tried in the provincial court, and 30 months for cases in the superior court (or cases tried in the provincial court after a preliminary inquiry). Defence delay does not count towards the presumptive ceiling.
  • Once the presumptive ceiling is exceeded, the burden shifts to the Crown to rebut the presumption of unreasonableness on the basis of exceptional circumstances. Exceptional circumstances lie outside the Crown’s control in that (1) they are reasonably unforeseen or reasonably unavoidable, and (2) they cannot reasonably be remedied. If the exceptional circumstance relates to a discrete event, the delay reasonably attributable to that event is subtracted. If the exceptional circumstance arises from the case’s complexity, the delay is reasonable.
  • Below the presumptive ceiling, in clear cases, the defence may show that the delay is unreasonable. To do so, the defence must establish two things: (1) it took meaningful steps that demonstrate a sustained effort to expedite the proceedings; and (2) the case took markedly longer than it reasonably should have.
  • For cases currently in the system, the framework must be applied flexibly and contextually, with due sensitivity to the parties’ reliance on the previous state of the law.

...the new framework will help facilitate a much-needed shift in culture. In creating incentives for both sides, it seeks to enhance accountability by fostering proactive, preventative problem solving. From the Crown’s perspective, the framework clarifies the content of the Crown’s ever-present constitutional obligation to bring the accused to trial within a reasonable time. Above the ceiling, the Crown will only be able to discharge its burden if it can show that it should not be held accountable for the circumstances which caused the ceiling to be breached because they were genuinely outside its control. Crown counsel will be motivated to act proactively throughout the proceedings to preserve its ability to justify a delay that exceeds the ceiling, should the need arise. Below the ceiling, a diligent, proactive Crown will be a strong indication that the case did not take markedly longer than reasonably necessary.

The new framework also encourages the defence to be part of the solution. If an accused brings a s. 11 (b) application when the total delay (minus defence delay and delay attributable to exceptional circumstances that are discrete in nature) falls below the ceiling, the defence must demonstrate that it took meaningful and sustained steps to expedite the proceedings as a prerequisite to a stay. Further, the deduction of defence delay from total delay as a starting point in the analysis clearly indicates that the defence cannot benefit from its own delay-causing action or inaction.

The new framework makes courts more accountable, too. Absent exceptional circumstances, the ceiling limits the extent to which judges can tolerate delays before a stay must be imposed. Indeed, courts are important players in changing courtroom culture. Many courts have developed robust case management and trial scheduling processes, focussing attention on possible sources of delay (such as pre-trial applications or unrealistic estimates of trial length) and thereby seeking to avoid or minimize unnecessary delay. Some courts, however, have not.

As we have said, this Court also has a role to play. On many occasions, this Court has established detailed guidelines and minimum requirements to give meaningful content to constitutional rights in the criminal law context (see, e.g., R. v. Fearon, 2014 SCC 77, [2014] 3 S.C.R. 621, at para. 83;Lavallee, Rackel & Heintz v. Canada (Attorney General), 2002 SCC 61, [2002] 3 S.C.R. 209, at para. 49;Canada (Attorney General) v. Federation of Law Societies of Canada, 2015 SCC 7, [2015] 1 S.C.R. 401, at paras. 53-56). Section 11 (b) has received its content in much the same way. Cromwell J.’s framework, like ours, and like Morin and Askov, is entirely judicially created. And, like ours, and like Morin and Askov, it relies heavily on numerical guidelines (with such guidelines acting as guideposts, not absolute limitation periods). Our approach is entirely consistent with the judicial role.

Ultimately, all participants in the justice system must work in concert to achieve speedier trials. After all, everyone stands to benefit from these efforts. As Sharpe J.A. wrote in R. v. Omar, 2007 ONCA 117, 84 O.R. (3d) 493:

The judicial system, like all other public institutions, has limited resources at its disposal, as do the litigants and legal aid. . . . It is in the interest of all constituencies — those accused of crimes, the police, Crown counsel, defence counsel, and judges both at trial and on appeal — to make the most of the limited resources at our disposal. [para. 32]

Sharpe J.A.’s reference to finite resources is an important point. We are aware that resource issues are rarely far below the surface of most s. 11 (b) applications. By encouraging all justice system participants to be more proactive, some resource issues will naturally be resolved because parties will be encouraged to eliminate or avoid inefficient practices. At the same time, the new framework implicates the sufficiency of resources by reminding legislators and ministers that unreasonable delay in bringing accused persons to trial is not merely contrary to the public interest: it is constitutionally impermissible, and will be treated as such.


The right to a trial within a reasonable time has aptly been described as “discipline for the justice system”, in that it may cause “discomfort in the short term but [it will bring] achievement in the long term” (Code, at pp. 133-34).

In this case, the system was undisciplined. It failed. Mr. Jordan’s s. 11 (b) right was breached when it took 49.5 months to bring him to trial. All the parties were operating within the culture of complacency towards delay that has pervaded the criminal justice system in recent years. There is simply no reasonable explanation for why the matter took as long as it did. ...

We agree with Cromwell J. that our differences of opinion are indeed fundamental. In our view, given the considerable doctrinal and practical problems confronting the Morin approach, further minor refinements to the model are incapable of responding to the challenges facing timely justice in this country.

Real change will require the efforts and coordination of all participants in the criminal justice system.

For Crown counsel, this means making reasonable and responsible decisions regarding who to prosecute and for what, delivering on their disclosure obligations promptly with the cooperation of police, creating plans for complex prosecutions, and using court time efficiently. It may also require enhanced Crown discretion for resolving individual cases. For defence counsel, this means actively advancing their clients’ right to a trial within a reasonable time, collaborating with Crown counsel when appropriate and, like Crown counsel, using court time efficiently. Both parties should focus on making reasonable admissions, streamlining the evidence, and anticipating issues that need to be resolved in advance.

For the courts, this means implementing more efficient procedures, including scheduling practices. Trial courts may wish to review their case management regimes to ensure that they provide the tools for parties to collaborate and conduct cases efficiently. Trial judges should make reasonable efforts to control and manage the conduct of trials. Appellate courts must support these efforts by affording deference to case management choices made by courts below. All courts, including this Court, must be mindful of the impact of their decisions on the conduct of trials.

For provincial legislatures and Parliament, this may mean taking a fresh look at rules, procedures, and other areas of the criminal law to ensure that they are more conducive to timely justice and that the criminal process focusses on what is truly necessary to a fair trial. Legal Aid has a role to play in securing the participation of experienced defence counsel, particularly for long, complex trials. And Parliament may wish to consider the value of preliminary inquiries in light of expanded disclosure obligations. Government will also need to consider whether the criminal justice system (and any initiatives aimed at reducing delay) is adequately resourced.

Thus, broader structural and procedural changes, in addition to day-to-day efforts, are required to maintain the public’s confidence by delivering justice in a timely manner. Timely trials are possible. More than that, they are constitutionally required."

Justice Cromwell wrote as follows (at paras. 254, 263, 266, 272-273, 275-276, 281, 291, 293, 302):

"...I fundamentally disagree with the approach proposed by my colleagues. It is, in my respectful view, both unwarranted and unwise. The proposed approach reduces reasonableness to two numerical ceilings. But doing so uncouples the right to be tried within a reasonable time from the Constitution’s text and purpose in a way that is difficult to square with our jurisprudence; exceeds the proper role of the Court by creating time periods which appear to have no basis or rationale in the evidence before the Court; and risks negative consequences for the administration of justice. Based on the limited evidence in the record, the presumptive time periods proposed by my colleagues are unlikely to improve the pace at which the vast majority of cases move through the system while risking judicial stays for potentially thousands of cases. Moreover, the increased simplicity which is said to flow from this approach is likely illusory. The complexity inherent in determining unreasonable delay has been moved into deciding whether to “rebut” the presumption that a delay is unreasonable if it exceeds the ceiling in particular cases: para. 47.


The proposed judicially created “ceilings” largely uncouple the right to be tried within a reasonable time from the concept of reasonableness which is the core of the right. The bedrock constitutional requirement of reasonableness in each particular case is replaced with a fixed ceiling and is thus converted into a requirement to comply with a judicially legislated metric. This is inconsistent with the purpose of the right, which after all, is to guarantee trial within a reasonable time. Reducing “reasonableness” to a judicially created ceiling, which applies regardless of context, does not achieve this purpose.


The proposed approach in effect substitutes a right to be “tried under the ceiling” for a right to be tried within a reasonable time. In doing so, it unjustifiably diminishes the right guaranteed by the Charter and sets aside a central teaching of our s. 11 (b) jurisprudence — that reasonableness cannot be captured by a number.


Creating presumptive, fixed ceilings is a matter for Parliament, not for this Court, in my respectful view.

My colleagues write, and I agree, that giving meaningful content to constitutional rights is entirely consistent with the judicial role: para. 115. But that is not what the proposed ceilings do. The proposed ceilings do not so much define the content of the s. 11 (b) right to a trial within a reasonable time as place new limits on the exercise of that right for reasons of administrative efficiency that have nothing to do with whether the delay in a given case was or was not excessive. In my respectful view, this is inconsistent with the judicial role.


Moreover, the ceilings appear to be illogical. The ceilings accept the Morin guidelines for institutional delay: 8 to 10 months in provincial courts and 14 to 18 months in cases involving a preliminary hearing and a trial: para. 52. This means that the proposed ceilings allow 8 to 10 months for the inherent time requirements of the case in provincial courts, which seems long, while allowing only marginally more inherent time requirements (12 to 16 months) for cases — generally significantly more complex cases — that involve a preliminary inquiry and a trial. As well, under the ceilings, the seriousness or gravity of the offence cannot be relied on to discharge the onus which the ceilings impose: para. 81. Yet under the transitional scheme, this remains a relevant factor: para. 96. The illogical result is that serious offences are more likely to be stayed under the ceilings than under the transitional scheme.

What evidence there is in the record suggests that it would be unwise to establish these sorts of ceilings. For the vast majority of cases, the ceilings are so high that they risk being meaningless. They are unlikely to address the culture of delay that is said to exist. If anything, such high ceilings are more likely to feed such a culture rather than eliminate it.


Developing the proposed ceilings in the absence of evidence and submissions by counsel contrasts with the Court’s development of the administrative guidelines for institutional delay in Askov and Morin. ...

...In my respectful view, this Court should not impose on the criminal justice system the risk that thousands of prosecutions will be judicially stayed. Doing so is especially regrettable when it is done, as is proposed here, in a virtual factual vacuum, with no opportunity for submissions about either the wisdom of this approach or the accuracy of the assumptions on which it is based.


Imposing judicially created ceilings as an aspect of our s. 11 (b) jurisprudence presents risks. If we are to take these risks through the imposition of ceilings or other time limits, these limits should be created by legislation and informed by facts.


I am not convinced that this Court should impose the scheme proposed by my colleagues. It diminishes Charter rights. It casts aside three decades of the Court’s jurisprudence when no participant in the appeal called for such a wholesale change — and this in the context of a case in which all of us agree that the result is clear under the existing jurisprudence. It has not been the subject of adversarial scrutiny or debate. The record does not support the particular ceilings selected. Nor, so far as I can tell, does the Court-conducted examination of reported cases. And it risks repetition of the Askov aftermath in which thousands of prosecutions were judicially stayed. In short, the proposed scheme is, in my respectful view, wrong in principle and unwise in practice.

Note: The summary and body are drawn from Eugene Meehan’s SupremeAdvocacy Weekly Updates for the Law Community.