Criminal defence lawyers in Alberta are responding after prosecutors said approximately 200 criminal cases had been stayed in the last two months.
In a joint news release, the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association (CDLA), the Criminal Trial Lawyers’ Association (CTLA) and the Red Deer Criminal Defence Lawyers Association (RDCDLA) said they support the justice minister’s reaction. However, they also asked her to urge prosecutors to use discretion “across all types of charges, independent of the triage process and Jordan/speedy trial parameters.”
This discretion, the group says, would significantly reduce the trial backlog in Alberta.
“Every day our members encounter cases where police never should have laid charges in the first place, and yet prosecutors continue to pursue these weak cases from the outset, or pursue to trial marginal cases that deteriorate below the ‘reasonable likelihood of conviction’ threshold that exists in Alberta.”
A Supreme Court of Canada ruling (R. vs. Jordan) set new rules for how long a case can take from start to finish. Under the new rules, an unreasonable delay would be presumed should proceedings exceed 18 months in provincial court or 30 months in superior court from the date of charge to the end of a trial.
“We, too, are very concerned in terms of what’s going on here,” Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley said in response the stayed charges.
“We certainly are doing our level best to ensure that serious and violent matters are prioritized, that we’re screening out those things that don’t need to find themselves in the justice system to places like alternative measures… We are working to ensure the system is properly resourced and operates properly going forward,” she said.
Ganley said more prosecutors and court clerks are being sought.
In October, the province announced a new triage system which it says is already proving effective.
“Triage sort of works to allow us to meet those timelines by ensuring that cases that don’t require trial time move through the system quickly and that nothing is being set for trial that’s not actually going to proceed to trial,” Chief Crown Prosecutor Suzanne Kendall told Global News in an exclusive interview.
The priority is serious and violent crimes.
“We are examining each of the cases where there’s a concern about Jordan and we’re actively taking steps to ensure we don’t lose those cases to delay,” Kendall said.
The criminal lawyers group said Tuesday there’s another problem that will result in even “meritorious and serious charges” being stayed: inadequate resourcing.
Last week, the Alberta Crown Attorneys’ Association said Wednesday the province needs to lift a hiring freeze on Crown prosecutors and add additional new positions. It said 35 full-time positions currently sit empty when at least 50 new posts are needed.
Watch below: The Alberta Crown Attorneys’ Association says more than 200 cases have been stayed in the last two months. ACAA President James Pickard says the justice system needs more resources.
Criminal lawyers said Legal Aid Alberta is experiencing an unprecedented increase in demand for criminal justice representation.
“When assessing this call for additional prosecutors, we call upon Minister Ganley to also recognize the inherently unfair imbalance of a criminal justice system which provides a legal aid budget for criminal defence representation that is only 30 per cent of that of the prosecution service.
“‘Justice’ cannot be achieved with such a serious imbalancing of the scales.”
According to the group, the province suggested finding inefficiencies in the Legal Aid budget, but criminal lawyers feel that will only lead to more delays.
“The current problems facing our criminal justice system are numerous and complex, and can only be properly addressed if all sides work co-operatively to find principled, evidence-based solutions,” the criminal lawyers group said. “Our organizations remain committed to work closely with Minister Ganley, the courts and the Crown Prosecution Service to find these solutions as quickly as possible.”