Alberta hiring 50 new Crown prosecutors, 30 support staff to deal with court backlogs

Alberta hiring 50 new Crown prosecutors, 30 support staff to deal with court backlogs

The Alberta government plans to hire 50 Crown prosecutors and 30 support staff to deal with a chronic backlog in the court system that has prompted Crowns to stay charges and triage cases.

The overall investment is $14.5 million and will be part of next week's provincial budget, Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley said at a news conference Thursday. 

"The steps we plan to take are vital for access to justice and our justice system as a whole," Ganley said. 

The government was already hiring 15 Crown prosecutors before Thursday's announcement. The additional money means another 35 can be hired.

Ganley's announcement comes one day after a media report forced the government to release a triage protocol meant to guide Crown prosecutors on how to handle cases in light of severe court backlogs.

Wildrose Leader Brian Jean welcomed the increased funding but said the effects of the backlog will continue until all the new staff is hired and on the job. 

"I'm very concerned about the next six months to a year and how many people, how many criminals, are going to be walking the streets without being prosecuted as a result of lack of resources," Jean said. 

Progressive Conservative MLA Mike Ellis, a former Calgary police sergeant, called the extra funding a positive first step but said a refusal to fund Crown prosecutors in the past has led to stays in 200 cases. 

He said the government is reacting and not leading. 

"It is absolutely disappointing to know that this government needed a public outcry … to actually do the right thing," Ellis said. 

Judges needed too

The nine-page protocol, dated Feb. 27, instructs prosecutors to focus on cases that have a better likelihood of conviction and seek lesser charges in other cases to reach an early resolution.

The protocol is set out as a way for Alberta prosecutors to deal with a backlog of cases that became worse following a Supreme Court decision in the Barrett Jordan case that sets deadlines for when matters should go to trial.

Court of Queen's Bench case trials must now be concluded within 30 months, and provincial court matters within 18 months, with an extension to 30 months if the case includes a preliminary inquiry.​

The issue came to a head late last month after Edmonton's chief Crown prosecutor stayed charges in 15 cases, including charges for violent offences.

The Alberta Crown Attorneys Association revealed the next day that 200 charges had been stayed since the start of 2017.

Ganley said there were already backlogs in the system when she became justice minister in May 2015.

The Jordan decision made things worse, she said. 

A hiring freeze has created a shortage of Crown prosecutors and court clerks. Alberta is also struggling with a shortage of superior court judges, who are appointed by the federal government. 

Ganley said Alberta has the lowest per-capita number of federally-appointed judges in the country. 

Alberta has 310 Crown prosecutors. Ten were hired to conduct justice of the peace hearings after a man with a long record of violent crime was released on bail and later shot and killed RCMP Const. David Wynn in St. Albert.

Members of the opposition said the government's triage plan sends the wrong message to criminals, who think they can get away scot-free, and to victims who feel they no longer have an opportunity to seek justice.