Alberta plagued by court delays

The Canadian Press
Bill Graveland

CALGARY–Alberta prosecutors say court backlogs and delays mean they are tossing criminal cases “on the trash heap.”
Senior Calgary prosecutor Jonathan Hak told court this week the system is overloaded with criminal cases and “there’s not a blessed thing the Crown can do about that.”
“What the Crown is doing is taking cases that are perfectly prosecutable and we’re just tossing them on the trash heap,” Hak charged during a hearing into whether a woman’s conviction in her son’s death should be overturned due to unreasonable delay.
“We’re saying these aren’t important enough.”
Focusing on some cases at the expense of others “does a disservice to the people involved,” Hak added.
He said the Crown has been ordered to streamline cases and the outcome has been unsatisfactory.
The judge hearing the woman’s case noted Canada always has grappled with delayed trials.
“Why is it in other jurisdictions around the world they can do it?” Justice Kristine Eidsvik asked.
The Supreme Court issued the so-called Jordan decision last summer. It set out a framework to determine whether a criminal trial has been unreasonably delayed and cited a “culture of complacency” for contributing to the problem.
The ruling said anyone charged with an offence has the right to have the case tried within a reasonable amount of time–18 months for provincial courts and 30 months for superior courts.
There are exceptions, and the ruling came with a transitional measure for cases already in the system.
The dissenting minority on the high court argued the new time limits could lead to thousands of prosecutions being tossed out.
Alberta Justice minister Kathleen Ganley said prosecutors have been urged to focus on cases that involve serious or violent crimes, but added dropping a case is a last resort.
Rather, she said, the intent is to try to resolve less urgent cases early on.
“I think it is the right thing to do,” Ganley told The Canadian Press. “A lot of matters tend to resolve [on] the date of trial and that’s not a super efficient use of anyone’s time.
“If we can move to getting those things resolved earlier, that will solve a lot of our problems.”
Ganley said she’s not surprised by the frustration because the backlog has been growing for years.
The Supreme Court decision means the courts have had to try to adapt very quickly but the system can’t change overnight, she reasoned.
The province has requested more positions for Court of Queen’s Bench.
But of the 77 total positions on the bench, 14 of them–including 10 new ones announced by the Trudeau government–remain unfilled.
“If those 14 vacancies were filled tomorrow, those people still do need to get some training and be up to speed,” Ganley noted.
The president of the Criminal Defence Lawyers’ Association in Calgary said the “slow trickle” of federal appointments has made no difference so far.
“Any improvements from those new appointments would show up over the next year or so,” said Ian Savage.
“There’s no quick fix,” he stressed. “Adding a handful of judges or prosecutors is not going to seriously change anything.”
And the chronic court backlog sends a clear message to the general public, Savage suggested.
“It tells the public that the political mentality of putting your finger in the dike to hold the water back is alive and well.”