While on a family road trip in summer of 2013, I was ticketed for speeding on a stretch of highway west of Sudbury, Ontario. Being a lawyer, for the hours of driving that followed I could think of nothing but how to get the fine reduced or the ticket withdrawn. After all, the police speed trap was such that even the most cartoonishly-stereotypical of deep-south state troopers would be impressed by its audacity.
I was reminded of this episode when in preparation for a discussion with some Ontario judges on innovation in the courts, I came across a treasure trove of statistical reports on the activities of the Ontario Court of Justice (analogous in level and role to the Provincial courts in other Canadian jurisdictions). Among the various OCJ reports was the following dealing with non-criminal and non-family matters: Provincial Offences Activity: Charges Received/Charges Disposed by Statute. Highway Traffic Act (HTA) matters dominate, but the scope includes everything else from liquor licensing, to employment standards to environmental protection to municipal by-laws. The reports describe these collectively as Provincial Offences Act (POA) matters.
Averaged across all judicial districts, speeding tickets account for 33.63% of all POA charges entering the court system between April 1, 2014 and March 31, 2015. In Espanola, the district relevant to my personal brush with the law, it’s 69%. Personal vindication as to my impressions of speed trap the aside, the real story of the statistics comes in what happens after an offence notice is issued.
High cost, low value
If the OCJ has a role to play in adjudicating speeding tickets, there is little indication it wants the job or that it is doing it well. [In fairness, there is no indication it is doing a poor job. The point is we don’t know. There is only so much you can glean from statistics.]
The good news is that of the 567,559 charges received in the Provincial Offences court for HTA s. 128 violations during the reporting period, the vast majority are resolved before reaching the trial date. Exact numbers are unavailable as entry and resolution dates can straddle different reporting periods, but it’s roughly 85%. As the stats don’t provide any insight on pre-trial appearances to set trial dates, the degree of pre-trial judicial involvement to this point is not described so even the good news may not be all good news.
The bad news is that for those that make it to a trial date, we have no insight on how many were resolved on the courthouse steps, how many resulted in a trial and what the results of those trial were. Consequently, we have no way of knowing if the courts had any useful role to play in the process other than as a bargaining chip or venue for negotiation. But of the roughly 82,000 matters that went this far, two things are abundantly clear. A significant amount of court time and resources (to say nothing of prosecutor, police, witness, public, counsel, etc….impacts) were allocated and the public gained almost nothing from it.
As an example of wasted resources, consider Toronto. Nearly half (48%) of speeding tickets issued in Toronto are not disposed of until the trial date (again, with or without a trial, we don’t know). This is over three times the provincial average. Why? Speculation from some is the Toronto police are notorious for not attending as witnesses on speeding ticket trials so the smartest move the driver can take is to roll the dice and let it go to court. If Toronto numbers somehow reverted to provincial averages, it would remove over 20,000 scheduled court appearances from Toronto court calendars every year. Might that take a little stress of the system?
For evidence of low value, over the same 12-month reporting period from which these statistics were drawn, the Ontario Court of Justice has made only five written rulings available on CanLII. Considering that one of the objections to moving certain classes of high volume dispute resolution away from the courts has been the potential detriment to the evolution of the common law, it’s hard to see any real contribution from the status quo either.
But wait, there’s more!
In confining this discussion to superficial insights from limited speeding ticket statistics, I’m barely scratching the surface. I haven’t even begun to tell you what the other reports show. It truly is a treasure trove. I’m very grateful the OCJ undertook the effort and made it available.
Other fascinating findings include:
- It takes an average of 200 days and 11 court appearances to dispose of robbery charges even though most will be resolved before trial date
- The vast majority of prostitution charges were stayed or withdrawn at or before trial, yet there was still an average of 11.3 appearances and an average disposition timeline of 220 days
- Just over three-quarters of all POA charges in Ontario will be resolved before trial date. Meanwhile in Ottawa, over 91% never reach the courthouse steps on the trial date
These stats are important and much more would be welcome. But even within the scope available, there is much worth examining. So now that we have this information, what are we going to do with it to identify opportunities to learn and to drive efficiencies and improvements in the system?