Ottawa has allocated $4.4 million over two years to fund six extra federally-appointed judges, in Quebec and Alberta.
But this is too little to prevent acute delays in the Alberta justice system and does nothing to help Ontario’s clogged courts, according to sources.
Yesterday’s federal budget says: “In recognition of an increased workload, Economic Action Plan 2014 proposes to create two new positions on the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench and four new positions on the Quebec Superior Court.
“Increases in the number of complicated, high-profile criminal and civil cases have caused significant delays in conducting hearings, at times up to 18 months, at the Superior Court level in these provinces.”
The six judicial posts will “reduce these delays to ensure that cases are heard in a timely manner and that serious charges are not being dropped because of hearing delays,” the document says.
But an informed Alberta source says the announcement is too little, too late. Speaking anonymously, the source said: “It in no way even addresses — nor will we be able to provide — the services that public needs. Delay and its consequences will become epidemic.”
Alberta’s Court of Queen’s Bench asked for an additional four judges in 2008, but due to the province’s population increase, now estimates another 14 are needed,
Legal Feeds understands the court has submitted a series of formal business cases to ministers setting out the need for more judges — specifically a supplementary note in June 2012 and, most recently, a letter in late January 2014.
These have highlighted Alberta’s low ratio of superior court level judges, relative to its population, compared with other provinces.
Legal Feeds has analyzed latest figures published by Statistics Canada and the Office of the Commissioner for Judicial Affairs Canada, to see how the provinces compare (see chart above).
Taking into account the proposed appointments, Ontario actually has the lowest number of full time superior court judges for its population, followed by Alberta, then Quebec.
This is also true when supernumerary judges are taken into account.
Criminal lawyer Norman Boxall, a partner at Bayne Sellar Boxall, would welcome more judges for Ontario’s Superior Court.
“The Superior Court in Ontario is very busy and we are seeing increasing delays here in Ottawa,” he says. “An increased complement and prompt refilling of positions that become vacant could only help.”
However, this is only part of the solution, says Jody Berkes, lawyer at Toronto-based criminal law firm Berkes Newton-Smith.
“Certainly having more judges will increase the number of cases that the system can handle,” he says, adding: “However, simply appointing more judges is only half the equation.
“To truly increase access to justice, one must also fund legal aid to ensure that the litigants who appear before these judges can be represented by lawyers.”
The federal and provincial governments need to act together on this, he feels.
In an e-mailed statement, a spokeswoman for Justice Minister Peter MacKay said: “Our government is providing significant resources to respond to increased caseloads in the provinces of Alberta and Quebec.”
The government made more than 600 judicial appointments since 2006, including more than 50 since last summer, she said.
“We will continue working with our provincial counterparts to ensure they have the resources they need to administer the justice system more efficiently and effectively,” she added.
The spokeswoman also highlighted a tweet sent yesterday by Alberta’s Attorney General Jonathan Denis, which said: “Very happy to see two new judges for Alberta in (the Finance Minister’s) budget. Great news for a growing province!”
She did not mention Denis’ tweet sent earlier that day, which said: “Fingers crossed for 4 new Queen’s Bench judicial positions for Alberta in the federal budget today.”