'Appalling' shortage of immigration appeal judges means long delays for justice, Calgary lawyers warn

Calling it a "crisis," Calgary lawyers are warning an extreme shortage of judges to deal with immigration appeals in western Canada will make already lengthy waits for family re-unification unacceptably long.

The Immigration Appeal Division — a tribunal that hears rejected family-class immigration cases — is experiencing a dramatic reduction in board members.

The majority of cases dealt with by the tribunal involve people trying to bring spouses and other family members to Canada. It also hears cases of permanent residents, refugees and others who have been ordered out of the country.

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According to the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB), 11 federally-appointed judges should be hearing appeals — in Calgary and Vancouver — for the entire western region. But as of June 16, the IRB says it will be down to just one judge in each city.

The Privy Council Office, which took over the appointment process last year, tells CBC News there is one full-time and one part-time position in Vancouver and one member in Calgary.

"I'm very alarmed," said Peter Wong, a Calgary immigration lawyer who says, even when there was a full complement, the western region was short-staffed. "This crisis has already occurred."

Fears of more delays, cancellations

The glut of vacancies is spurring a cascade of concern that the western arm of the Immigration Appeal Division — which dealt with 1,756 new cases last year alone — is about to grind to a halt.

Michael Greene, a partner in Calgary-based Sherritt Greene Immigration Lawyers, calls the situation "appalling."

"Within a week, they're basically going to have an empty house," said Greene, who points out the one full-time judge left in Vancouver will be a new appointee.

New members generally take nine to 12 months to be considered fully productive.

"Everybody else will be gone and [there will be] nobody to handle this enormous volume," said Greene.

That means cases will be delayed, cancelled or not booked at all, and wait times will balloon beyond the current 12- to 18-month timeline, according to Wong.

"To me that's unacceptable," he said. "Spouses and people waiting for their parents should not have to be waiting two years, [or] three years to have an appeal heard. They need to have their day in court."

The Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada admits backlogs are a possibility.

In an email, a spokesperson for the department said officials are doing what they can to resolve and finalize cases, including having judges from Toronto deal with western Canadian hearings.

"However, we will refrain from scheduling hearings we do not have the operational capacity to hear, and it is possible that some appeal hearings will need to be postponed," read the statement.

Families already struggling

Families are already waiting too long to have their cases heard. according to Fariborz Birjandian, CEO of the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society.

Further delays are a big concern for the organization, which hears from a lot of newcomers about the situation.

"They are really suffering. They are frustrated," said Birjandian. "If we are bringing 300,000 people to this country, we have to be prepared for it."

Birjandian is calling on the federal government to take immediate action. "They're not moving as fast as they need to be...We want them to start looking at it today."

Backlog caused by government overhaul

The immigration vacancies are part of a large, nationwide backlog in appointments to federal Governor in Council positions.

The Trudeau government said last year the delays were caused, in part, by its decision to overhaul the entire appointments process and bring in a more transparent, merit-based system.

Through that change-over, responsibility for appointments to the Immigration Appeal Division shifted from the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada to the Privy Council Office (PCO).

A spokesperson for the PCO says the department hopes to finalize additional appointments in the coming weeks and is going through a selection process to identify more candidates.

"There's obviously a real problem in the way they've transitioned to their new appointment process," said Greene, who says many clients will no longer be able to have in-person hearings with judges.

"They'll have to settle for video hearings, which are just woefully inadequate," he said.

"It's a terrible process right now... And it's going to get far worse."