The Alberta Crown Attorneys’ Association is saying the province’s justice system is in crisis, as it calls on the government to fund 50 more prosecutors in the province and for 35 trial prosecutors to be hired to fill vacant spots.
The call comes as Alberta Minister of Justice Kathleen Ganley says recruiting is underway for 15 new Crown attorneys.
The association — which represents 262 Crowns who work for the Edmonton Crown Prosecutors’ Office, the Calgary Crown Prosecutors’ Office, regional prosecutions officers and a specialized prosecutions branch with offices in Alberta — says factors that have caused stress on Crowns are an increasing population in Alberta, an increasing number of criminal prosecutions and increasing severity of crime.
Damian Rogers, the Alberta Crown Attorneys’ Association treasurer and a Crown prosecutor in Edmonton, says there is a “conservative estimate” of 200 stayed cases in Alberta since January 2017, due to inadequate resources.
“I think it has a lot of implications throughout the justice system,” says Rogers.
“I believe we’re the only province that has essentially publicly gone out and said, ‘Look, we will make a decision to stay viable significant crimes in order to prioritize more serious crimes,’ so we’re not talking about shoplifting or petty crime, we’re talking about impaired driving, assault, frauds . . . they’re not insignificant files.”
Rogers says that, in 2007, there was a decision made that the prosecution service was understaffed and that, over the next three years, a number of personnel including Crown prosecutors, were hired, so there was a peak number of prosecutors reached in 2010.
“Our concern is that workloads have been increasing for prosecutors, caseloads have been increasing for prosecutors over the last number of years and the staffing level of our prosecution service was last reviewed in 2007, based on 2006 figures,” he says.
“Since that time, the complement has not increased of Crown prosecutors and, in fact, because of the current hiring restraint that our government has imposed on the Crown prosecution service and on other areas of government, we’re actually below the staffing numbers that were deemed appropriate back in 2007, based on 2006 numbers.”
Ganley says the government is “definitely concerned” by the stayed cases, and it has committed to hiring more Crowns.
“I don’t think anyone wants to see a victim not get to see their accused person have their day in court because of a procedural matter,” she says.
She notes that some the stayed cases date back to 2012.
It’s difficult to comment on individual cases because “the prosecutors will exercise their discretion in each of those cases,” Ganley says. Vacancies on the province’s Court of Queen’s Bench are also part of the problem, she says.
“We’ve had — I think everyone will be aware — there have been backlogs, not just in Alberta but everywhere in the country, that have been sort of building up over a number of years, probably even decades, and those backlogs were suddenly sort of brought to the forefront by the decision of the Supreme Court in Jordan,” she says.
“So, a situation that had been sort of trending one way for quite a while was suddenly reversed, so that prompted us to act quite quickly, and so we have been discussing resourcing here throughout our budgeting process.”
Information provided by the Alberta government states there were 325 Crown prosecutors in 2016, compared with 256 Crowns in 2006.
Rogers says the 15 prosecutors promised by Ganley will not be enough.
“We would still be below the number of prosecutors we had for 2006 crime levels, and we’re saying, ‘No, we need those positions filled and we need, actually, new people, not just filling vacancies that exist already,’” he says.
Kelly Dawson, Criminal Trial Lawyers Association president and managing partner at Dawson Duckett Shaigec & Garcia Barristers in Edmonton, says he does “believe and accept that the Crown prosecution service is under-resourced and has been for some time,” though he says he can’t comment to the severity of the issue.
“There’s no doubt that the Crown has been forced to do a triage system and they have an early resolution office that is pumping out — trying to pump out, at least — attractive offers to resolve matters as quickly as possible. They are also increasing their use of stays, obviously, with respect to weaker charges,” says Dawson.
“This was a shift from what we’ve heard from them, that they’re now having to stay prosecutions that are otherwise meritorious, and if that is accurate and true, that certainly is strong evidence of public safety being put at risk with an under-resourced system.”
Dawson says there’s a “clear disparity” in the way funding is allocated to different parts of the criminal justice system in Alberta, such as policing, corrections, courts services, prosecution services and Legal Aid services.
“The problem here and in other jurisdictions is criminal justice resourcing and reforms [are] piecemeal at best, but I would say chaotic describes how governments have funded and implemented reforms to the criminal justice system to make it more efficient and effective, and it seems to be one of the poor boys on the budget priority list in most provinces,” he says.