May 31 2011 MONTREAL - The Quebec government dismissed the logic Wednesday behind a judge's shocking move to free 31 suspected criminal bikers, a verdict that called into question the strength of the province's justice system.
Quebec rejected the judge's conclusion that the justice system is too strained to handle the workload stemming from a major 2009 police crackdown that targeted 155 suspects, including alleged Hells Angels and their associates.
The Crown prosecutor is appealing the decision.
But Government critics pounced on the controversy, painting it as yet another sign the provincial justice system is failing.
Opposition Leader Pauline Marois blasted Premier Jean Charest's Liberals for bungling the "biggest trial in Quebec history."
"For months . . . the government insisted that it wanted to see criminals in prison, not on television," Marois said during a heated exchange in the provincial legislature.
"Yesterday, what we saw on television were criminals leaving prison.
"With this damning judgment, these disastrous consequences, could the premier once again tell us if he still has confidence in his justice minister and Quebec's chief prosecutor?"
Charest answered that he has "total confidence" in the justice minister and his colleagues.
"Quebec made major efforts in the investigations to bring criminal bikers to justice," he said of the operation, dubbed Operation SharQc.
"We are determined to do everything necessary to ensure that those who are accused will face justice — and that's exactly what we're going to do."
But recent events hint that cracks are forming in the justice system's foundation.
Quebec was recently engaged in a bitter labour dispute with Crown prosecutors and other government lawyers, many of whom left the system crippled earlier this year after they walked off the job.
Workload and salaries were key issues of contention.
The province was forced to pass a special resolution to end the two-week strike, a move that triggered mass resignations from the senior ranks of Quebec's Crown.
Quebec has since promised to hire more prosecutors.
The Crown acknowledged Wednesday that it could always use more prosecutors on a daily basis, but insisted its team was ready to start the cases in question as early as this month.
"Ongoing, from day to day, there is obviously room for more prosecutors," said Francois Briere, chief prosecutor for Quebec's bureau dedicated to fighting organized crime.
"(Right now), with what we have, we can function, but I'm not saying that we would not need more help."
Briere added he has no concerns about public safety now that these suspects are on the streets, saying he's confident in the ability of authorities to keep order.
The accused face charges including murder, gangsterism, drug trafficking and conspiracy in what could be one of the largest cases in Canadian history.
But Quebec Superior Court Justice James Brunton let 31 of the 155 initially accused — suspects charged with drug trafficking and gangsterism — off the hook on Tuesday.
He said the overloaded justice system is simply unable to provide the labour needed to try them in a reasonable timeline.
The trials of the remaining 124 suspects will be heard in a series of five expensive mega-trials, during which the cases of dozens of defendents can be heard at the same time.
About 2,200 witnesses have been called and if the evidence stored on four computer discs was printed out, it would stretch 145 kilometres.
Brunton criticized Justice Minister Jean-Marc Fournier and the director of criminal prosecutions for assuming the justice system could manage such large and complicated cases in a reasonable time-frame.
He said the delays would have prevented the accused from having fair trials. Defence lawyers, meanwhile, argued it could take a decade before the last of the accused goes to trial.