Alberta’s crown prosecutors want a hiring freeze lifted, and 50 more lawyers hired to ease the backlog of cases that prompted 15 cases to be stayed in Edmonton Tuesday.
The Alberta Crown Attorneys’ Association has had to get political to get its message across that the system needs a financial boost. President James Pickard told an Edmonton news conference they’re working at 2006 staffing levels, with one million more Albertans living here now.
“It’s like adding the province of Saskatchewan.”
Pickard said since January, across all of Alberta approximately 200 significant criminal charges have been stayed due to a lack of resources.
The crown attorneys cited a three year increase in the number of police files they work with. By their estimate the case load has grown from 200,000 charges to 250,000.
Pickard said “caseloads are starting to spiral out of control,” or how lawyers are not being treated in the manner that the way they feel they should be treated. He acknowledges that in the past, cuts have been avoided because the crown’s office is seen as a front line essential service.
“Justice must be maintained and that prosecutors are key to doing that.”
The association increased its lobbying efforts with the deputy minister and assistant deputy minister in November, recognizing that a ‘crisis’ was approaching. Pickard said the meetings have gone well, and they’ll see on March 16 when the provincial budget is tabled, how well those talks paid off.
“One of the reasons we wanted to speak out now is that we are in a budget cycle and we’d like to see these issues addressed in this upcoming budget,” said Damian Rogers, the association’s treasurer.
In court Tuesday, Chief Crown prosecutor Shelley Bykewich said there is a 14 per cent vacancy rate in the prosecutors’ office at the moment. She added the shortage is complicated by a Supreme Court of Canada ruling last year that set out new deadlines for completing trials: up to 30 months in superior courts and 18 months for cases at the provincial level. The stayed cases included charges of impaired driving, property offences, assault and breach of release conditions.
“We didn’t get much notice,” Pickard said of the stays. “I can’t comment on what other people might have known or have been told. And I can’t comment on what the next wave might be, we have no idea. I certainly hope there’s none, but as of what Ms. Bykewich said, it looks like it’s going to be more which, frankly, is not surprising.”
One of the problem Rogers has noticed is a lack of lawyers wanting to fill the positions.
“It’s a deep concern that we have that our reputation is getting damaged,” he said. “I can tell you that in some of the regional offices I’ve spoken to chief crowns who are having a hard time attracting people, usually from out of province, but they’re having a hard time attracting people because they’re hearing about the way we’re being treated by our government.”
It’s not only crown attorneys that need to be hired according to the association, Edmonton vice-president Breena Smith said court room support staff is also short.
“We are in court every single day, we can see the strains on the court clerks and the other court services that have not been properly resourced.”
Minister of Justice and Solicitor General Kathleen Ganley said they’ll have to wait a couple more weeks for the answer to their request for more Crown attorneys.
“Right now we are actively recruiting for fourteen positions. Those are positions that will be filled in any event. We’ve also filled some other positions at the Crown recently. With respect to other positions we’re going to have to await the budget. That comes out March 16, we’ll have more news then.” (sj-with files from the Canadian Press)