The Alberta government has promised to hire 35 more crown prosecutors, after complaints by the provincial crown attorney’s association that the province’s justice system was in crisis.
The announcement by Ganley comes ahead of the tabling of the provincial budget March 16, and on the heels of complaints by the Alberta Crown Attorney’s Association that due to inadequate resources, an estimated 200 cases had been stayed.
“The justice system is fundamental to the rights and safety of Albertans. I have been working on finding ways to improve that system, which has been increasingly backlogged over the years, since I took office,” said Minister Kathleen Ganley, in a statement provided to Law Times.
“The Jordan decision has had impacts across the province, and we moved quickly to ensure we were prioritizing matters in a proportionate and thoughtful way, and began immediately looking at what resourcing was necessary. We took a thoughtful and balanced approach. This is a huge step in the right direction, and we will continue to monitor the needs for resources in all areas of the justice system.”
According to numbers provided by the province, the “Alberta Crown Prosecution Service had 325 Crown prosecutors in 2016 and 256 Crown prosecutors in 2006.”
Damian Rogers, treasurer of the Alberta Crown Attorneys’ Association, says even with 35 crown prosecutors being added, more hiring needs to be done.
The crown attorney’s association 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, as well as people employed in appeals, education and policy roles.
“It’s a move in the right direction and the Minister acknowledged in her public comments that this was a start, rather than the end, of resourcing issues, and I think she was signalling that she appreciated that this would not necessarily be sufficient resources to resolve all of the issues we’ve had in terms of caseload,” says Rogers.
Rogers says there are positions that have not been filled due to a “hiring restraint” since 2015, and bringing 35 prosecutors on will fill vacant positions, but there are still another 50 prosecutors needed for trial and docket court. Factors that have caused stress on crowns are an increasing population in Alberta, an increasing number of criminal prosecutions, and increasing severity of crime, says Rogers.
“This is a return of staffing levels to early 2015 levels, before this hiring restraint happened,” he says.
The province had already announced it was adding 15 new prosecutors, and the announcement of 35 new prosecutors is in addition to that.
Rogers says due to a Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench decision, Hearing Office Bail Hearings (Re), 2017 ABQB 74, bail prosecutors will be needed because the court ruled that the crown’s practice of delegating first appearance bail hearings to police officers was not permissible under the Criminal Code, and gave a deadline of August 2017 for the crown to reassume that role.
A triage protocol will still be necessary for prosecutors despite the new people being hired, Rogers says.
“We’re still in a situation where prosecutors are going to be asked to prioritize serious and violent crime, and resolve less serious files by way of plea bargains, which we always did, but there is additional pressure on us to do that and it may result in offers being lower than we would have given in the past. . .,” he says.
Rogers said the association has asked the government to consider an external review of crown caseload.
“It’s a step in the right direction to have all those positions potentially filled, and we’ve been advised they won’t all be posted all at once, it will be over the next fiscal year that they’ll be able to return to full staffing levels,” says Rogers.
“We would have liked to have seen the timeline be a bit faster, but over the next year, we are anticipating a return to our earlier level of staffing for trial prosecutors.”
Ganley said the plan to add prosecutors has been underway for some time.
“A budget as large and complex as the provincial budget for Alberta takes months to develop,” said the statement by Ganley.
“This issue has been under discussion with my colleagues at the Cabinet table for months, and decisions were made well in advance of last week.”