Ontario judge slams legal system's lack of resources

 An Ontario judge blasted the legal system's lack of resources on Thursday while postponing for nearly a year the trial of five men accused of running a multimillion-dollar financial scam.

No judge in the Toronto area has time to try the men until at least January 2019, nearly five years after they were arrested, Superior Court Justice John McMahon told a Toronto courtroom Thursday.

"This case is very important, the gentlemen are presumed innocent, the public interest in a $14 million alleged fraud is important but the only way this case goes ahead before January is if there's another case the Crown wants to pull (to free up a judge)," McMahon said.

"It is frustrating, but we can only deal with what we have."

McMahon added that he had tried to find judges in neighbouring jurisdictions who would be available before January but had been unsuccessful.

The case involves Vincent Villanti, Revendra Chaudhary, Andrew Lloyd, Shane Smith and David Prentice, all charged with fraud over $5,000 and conspiracy to commit a crime in connection with an alleged investment and tax avoidance scheme. All have maintained their innocence.

The matter has already exceeded the 30 month time limit for criminal trials, established by the Supreme Court in 2016, and the accused applied last year to have their charges stayed on the basis they have been denied their right to be tried within a reasonable period.

A judge denied their application in September, ruling the case fit certain exceptions built into the rules due to its complexity and the fact that prosecutors "mitigated" delays by making evidence more accessible and working with one defence lawyer's illness.

But all five accused, who are out on bail, indicated in court Thursday they would ask for stays in light of the new delay, Crown lawyer Michael Lockner said.

"Facing a potentially additional 11 months ... I think there's really extreme jeopardy for this case," Lockner told the court.

The Ontario Superior Court, which handles all civil cases and serious criminal offences, has over 330 judges, of whom about 90 are assigned to Toronto.

The court's Chief Justice, Heather Smith, has made repeated calls for the federal government to increase the number of judges in Ontario and more quickly fill vacancies on the bench.

The federal government's recently-released budget for 2018 pledges to create six new judge positions for the Ontario Superior Court over the next fiscal year, though it remains to be seen how many of those positions will be in Toronto.

Toronto, in particular, is in need of more judges, said Criminal Lawyers Association president Michael Lacy said.

"The most serious cases get priority because of the requirement that cases be tried within 30 months in Superior Court, and then cases like a fraud case -- which also raise serious issues -- tend to get put on the back burner because there's not enough judges," Lacy said.

McMahon noted that in Toronto, there are 44 murder trials scheduled this year.

After Thursday's court hearing, one of the accused noted that he was now representing himself to save money.

"The financial resources don't allow you to continue, when you're looking at half a million dollars for a lawyer to step up and just be here to do this," Shane Smith said. "I've lost two houses and had a heart attack or two."

The Crown claims Smith and his co-accused ran an investment program through two companies, raising over $13 million from approximately 5,000 people. Investors were allegedly told their money would be used as start-up capital for small businesses, and that they could claim any resulting business losses on their personal income taxes, the Crown said.

The men allegedly used most or all of the investment money to pay their own salaries, expenses and company expenses, leading them to claim deductions on their taxes that were ultimately disallowed by the Canada Revenue Agency, the Crown said.

A sixth man charged in connection with the alleged scheme pleaded guilty last year.