WINNIPEG (CP) -- With the inquiry into the death
of nine-month-old Sophia Schmidt still not resolved nearly four years after
testimony wrapped up, the Manitoba government has passed a new law that could
see judges' wrists slapped for not being speedy with such reports.
The law, designed to "help give the victims' families closure," requires judges to produce inquest reports within six months or face a judicial hearing and disciplinary action.
"There's been a long standing concern about the length of time it takes to release inquiry reports to the public," said Manitoba Attorney General Gord Mackintosh Friday.
"This bill will help give survivors of a
tragedy who have lost loved ones some closure."
Several high-profile inquires have taken years to finish in Manitoba, including the case of Baby Sophia.
Sophia died of severe brain injuries after being violently shaken by her stepmother, Norma Jean Sinclair.
Both Sinclair and Sophia's father, Wade Tanner, were sent to jail for their involvement in the death.
An inquest headed by Judge Arnold Connor looked at how Sophia came to be placed by Child and Family Services with Sinclair and Tanner, despite a history of violence and child abuse.
That inquest wrapped up in December 1998. Tanner and Sinclair are already both out of prison, but the report has not been released.
The new law has drawn both praise and concern from members of the Canada's legal community.
"Six months seems to be a regular amount of time to make a decision, keeping in mind that there could be special reasons why things can be delayed," said Robert Hyslop, a provincial court judge in Newfoundland and vice-president of the Canadian Association of Provincial Court Judges.
"People are waiting for decisions. That's our job -- to give decisions."
Wayne Onchulenko, president of the Manitoba branch of the Canadian Bar Association, said while quick turnaround is good, judges may not have the resources to meet the deadlines.
"It's only a good thing if the province provides the judges with the resources necessary and the time necessary to do it," he said.
"If they require resources to do the administrative things around the report and they are not provided with those resources, then they are only setting the judges up to fail."
Mackintosh said the province is currently talking
with Manitoba's chief judge to decide how court time can be better used to meet
He pointed out that there are provisions in the new law for judges to apply for extensions and disciplinary measures would only be used as a last resort.
If such a case were to ever move to the hearing
process, a judge could possibly face removal from the bench.
Ian Greene, a political science professor at York University who specializes in the judicial process, said the deadlines could affect the way judges make decisions.
"It's an interference with judicial independence," Greene said. "Sometimes the decision comes during the writing and, if you are under pressure to meet a deadline, that decision may be different."
Allan Hutchinson, a law professor at York, said a
threat of discipline could also sour judges on hearing inquires.
"A good kick up the backside would be fine for many judges," he said. "But I'm not sure these legal sanctions are the way to go."
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