Dozens of 'significant' criminal charges stayed due to lack of resources: Alberta Crown Attorneys' Association

Forty-four criminal cases have been stayed in Calgary over the past four months and about 60 in Edmonton since last December because of a lack of resources in the provincial prosecution service, according to the Alberta Crown Attorneys' Association. 

The dropped cases include charges of fraud over $5,000, vehicle theft, break and enter, trafficking in stolen property, carrying concealed weapons and 18 charges of impaired driving, Damien Rogers, the group's treasurer, told the Calgary Eyeopener on Thursday.

"These are significant criminal cases. They're criminal cases that merit the involvement of a prosecutor, as an assigned prosecutor," he said.

Rogers said the number of stayed criminal cases is a clear indication the province needs to hire many more Crown lawyers to handle the increased caseload at Alberta courthouses.

"I think it's a big number because it's an unprecedented reason for staying or withdrawing cases — simply because the Crown prosecution service didn't have the people to prosecute them."

Province announces $14.5M investment

Hours after Rogers made the comments on the Eyeopener, the Alberta government announced a plan to invest $14.5 million into the criminal justice system to relieve the pressure on the system.

The province will hire 50 Crown prosecutors and 30 support staff to deal with the chronic backlog in the court system that has prompted Crowns to stay charges and triage cases, Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley said.

"In light of the recent Supreme Court of Canada decision in Jordan, this new investment is more important than ever," said Ganley in a news release.

The Jordan decision puts hard timelines in place to resolve a case: 18 months for provincial court matters and 30 months for Superior Court (in Alberta, the Court of Queen's Bench) to uphold an accused person's Charter right to a trial without unreasonable delays.

Impaired driving cases concerning 

Rogers said he has been most concerned about charges related to drinking and driving getting stayed as the result of the resource shortage in Alberta.

"There were 18 cases stayed or withdrawn for that offence," he said, referring to the Calgary situation. "I think that will be of concern to a number of people."

In Edmonton, 40 "significant" criminal cases were stayed or withdrawn for resource-related reasons in December 2016, Rogers said.

"Of those, five were files that were set for trials in the near future where no prosecutors were available to attend court," Rogers said.

In January and February this year, 21 significant criminal cases were dropped, he said. 

The province has been encouraging Crown prosecutors to use a "triage" approach to prioritize cases, according to a recently released nine-page document from the justice ministry.

"The triage protocol Mr. Speaker is explicit. Things will not be lost as prosecutions merely because of timing, but prosecutors are empowered to make the decisions necessary to focus on serious and violent crimes," Ganley said in the Legislature earlier this week. 

There are 295 Crown counselors in Alberta. Rogers was calling for 50 more prosecutors to be hired. 

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With files from the Calgary Eyeopener