Legal aid program left out of funding increase for Alberta court system

Man who killed Edmonton senior handed life sentence

Hiring 50 new Crown prosecutors and 30 support staff won't help end backlogs in Alberta's court system unless the province also provides money to legal aid, defence lawyers say.

The government is spending an additional $14.5 million to address backlogs in the system that have forced Crown prosecutors to stay charges because they were taking too long. 

Kelly Dawson, president of the Criminal Trial Lawyers Association, said the government also needs to address the program's $10-million funding deficit. Otherwise, the problem will continue.

"We can fill every courtroom in this province with judges and clerks and prosecutors," Dawson said, "but if you don't have relatively trained and experienced defence lawyers willing to do legal aid work ... then you're going to have serious problems in terms of continued and increased delay and the use of stay of proceedings in the court system."

Shortages have created serious backlogs in the system. A new triage system directs Crown prosecutors to focus on cases that have a better likelihood of conviction and seek lesser charges in other cases to reach an early resolution.

A Supreme Court decision in the Barrett Jordan case, which set new deadlines on when matters should go to trial, has put additional pressure on the system.

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.

Edmonton defence lawyer Deborah Hatch, a past president of the CTLA, said it is "inappropriate" to fund one side of the system without giving additional money to legal aid.

Hatch said a lack of legal aid funding has forced accused people to represent themselves in court, which has created more delays.

"Cases that would have taken two hours in court can end up taking two days," she said.

"Cases that could have been concluded in three or four appearances are now being concluded in 12 or 15 appearances. That has a huge impact on the justice system and that is something that people aren't considering right now."

Dawson said the CTLA has been talking with the government about legal aid.

While he hasn't received any confirmation, Dawson said he gets the sense justice officials understand that all aspects of the system need to be funded and that there will be good news in Thursday's provincial budget. 

"We remain optimistic that this government will ... finally turn their focus to really the poor cousin of the criminal justice system in Alberta and that's the defence side."

Since the NDP government was elected in May 2015, the province has increased legal aid funding by more than 20 per cent or $13.6 million, a spokesperson for Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley said. In the 2016/17 budget, legal aid received $77.9 million in funding.