CBC News Posted: Feb 16, 2017 2:48 PM MT Last Updated: Feb 16, 2017 9:26 PM MT
Alberta lawyers are sounding the alarm again about backlogs in the justice system that have resulted in alleged criminals walking free before they get to trial. Last summer, a Supreme Court decision put hard timelines on what is considered an unreasonable delay for bringing criminal matters to trial.
Defence lawyers can now file so-called Jordan applications — named after the high court decision that gives the Crown 18 months to get provincial court matters to trial and 30 months for superior court cases. Since late October, lawyers in Alberta have filed 58 Jordan applications to suspend cases over unreasonable delays. Ian Savage, head of the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association in Calgary, says he isn't surprised. "I think that number will be increasing over the next year drastically," he said. Savage says lawyers and judges are trying to bring cases to trial more quickly, but there's only so much they can do.
"There are many current strains in the system that work against that, that only government can actually control in terms of financing the justice system," he said. Since the province started tracking Jordan applications last October:
- 58 Jordan applications have been filed.
- 10 applications are pending.
- Six applications have been granted, one of which was appealed by the Crown.
- 16 applications have been dismissed by the court.
- 12 applications were abandoned by defence.
- Six matters were proactively stayed by Crown on the basis that they would not survive a Jordan application.
- Eight matters were resolved unrelated to Jordan.
Savage says one of the problems is the shortage of Court of Queen's Bench judges in Alberta. Last October, the Alberta government announced it would create 10 new judge positions. Judges at the superior court level — such as Alberta's Court of Queen's Bench — are appointed and paid by the federal government, but the province administers and pays for all the related support services at the courthouses. Although provinces can increase the number of justice positions on superior courts, only the federal government has the authority to approve and appoint justices. "We understand more [Queen's Bench] judges are going to be appointed ... but that won't alleviate the long term deficiency that's been in place in Alberta for more than 10 or 15 years," Savage said. "So that will slowly improve the system, but not quickly."
At the provincial court level, Savage says the government's decision to hold the line on legal aid funding is also creating delays. "So there's a lot of things in the system that are not functioning well, and will continue to produce more applications under the Jordan principles." Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley said she couldn't comment on whether more funding was coming to legal aid because the budget, expected in March, is currently being developed.
She said measures are being taken to reduce the number of cases that end up in court. Ganley says early case resolution units staffed by senior Crown prosecutors resolve criminal cases without having to go to trial. The province is also trying to move procedural applications out of the courtroom and over to the courthouse counter, as well to use remote scheduling so parties don't have to appear before a judge to set dates for a next appearance. "So that takes those administrative things away from judges in the provincial court to have to deal with so that's been helpful," Ganley said