Delays in New Brunswick’s justice system have resulted in several theft and fraud charges being stayed against a former Fredericton car dealer.

In a written decision dated March 6, Court of King’s Bench Justice Terrence Morrison stayed 25 charges against William Cornford, after his defence lawyer filed an application arguing the length of time between the charges being laid and the scheduled conclusion of his trial was unconstitutional.

It’s the second time in as many months that a New Brunswick judge has stayed charges against someone because of unreasonable delays 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 then faced additional charges on Nov. 26, 2020.

The charges included theft, fraud and uttering forged documents and false pretences related to the business. His scheduled four-week trial would have begun on May 29 and ended on June 23.

A blue commercial building and an empty parking lot.

However, Morrison agreed that the scheduled end date would surpass the 30-month ceiling for how long it should take for a superior court case to be completed, as decided by the Supreme Court of Canada.

Ben Reentovich, Cornford’s lawyer, said the charges being stayed equates to there being a “permanent pause” on the proceedings.

“This is not a technicality,” Reentovich said. “This is a fundamental right that each of us have, and … it protects all of us because it encourages the system to act more efficiently.”

Judge’s bout with COVID contributed to delays

The most significant delay outlined in Morrison’s decision happened when a scheduled Jan. 7, 2022, preliminary inquiry had to be rescheduled to March 11 of that year because the judge had to isolate with COVID-19 as per Public Health directives.

Morrison said the Crown argued the circumstances were exceptional and shouldn’t count in the days tallied to meet the 30-month ceiling for allowing charges to be stayed.

Morrison said he agreed that the circumstances were exceptional, but added that the Crown didn’t appear to take any reasonable steps to overcome that delay.

There wasn’t any evidence to show that the complexity of the case would have been a reasonable excuse for why it dragged on for so long, he said.

“I am not satisfied that the Crown has demonstrated that this is 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 trial’: lawyer

On Feb. 24, a Moncton provincial court judge stayed a sexual assault charge against a man after deciding he’d waited too long to be tried.

At the time, Shara Munn, the president of the New Brunswick Crown Prosecutors Association, said staffing shortages for prosecutors had become a crisis in recent years, contributing to the delays in the justice system, and charges ultimately being stayed.

Reentovich, said charges being stayed remains the “exception” in New Brunswick courts. However, he said there has been a recent trend of cases coming close to meeting the ceiling set out by the Supreme Court of Canada.

The 2016 Supreme Court ruling set that ceiling at 18 months for provincial court matters to wrap up, and 30 months for superior court matters.

“We’re pretty good about not surpassing the limit, but a lot of cases are coming right up to the the ceiling, and it’s a problem because the present ceiling of 18 months or 30 months is … not meant to be the norm,” Reentovich said.

“If you were to go to court today, things are being set a year from now and … I don’t think that’s in keeping with the spirit of what Supreme Court of Canada said in R. v. Jordan. People are waiting too long for trial.”

Decisions to stay ‘exceptional’

CBC News asked for an interview with Attorney General Ted Flemming about what’s being done to address the issue.

In an email, Department of Justice spokesperson Geoffrey Downey said he can’t comment on Cornford’s case as the decision is still open to being appealed, and the department is reviewing it.

Downey said decisions to stay a charge because of an unreasonable pre-trial delay are very exceptional, but “unfortunate, because everyone who’s been harmed by crime deserves to have the case decided on its merits.”

“Public Prosecutions Services reviews every file that is stayed for delay, to ensure lessons are learned and the risk is reduced going forward.”

Trial still scheduled on other charges

Morrison’s decision this month doesn’t spell an end to Cornford’s problems with the law.

As noted in his decision, the 25 charges that were stayed related to commercial victims.

Another set of charges laid last August related to individual victims, and he’s still set to go on trial for those.

They include eight charges of fraud, alleged to have occurred between October 2017 and January 2020.

Five of those charges were laid jointly against Cornford and Peter Kennedy, another former co-owner of W&P Auto Sales.

Reentovich said Cornford is set to stand trial on those charges in November.

This content was originally published here.