Nova Scotia plans to hire 27 new Crown lawyers to tackle court backlogs

Brad Johns is Nova Scotia's justice minister. (Robert Short/CBC - image credit)
Brad Johns is Nova Scotia's justice minister. (Robert Short/CBC - image credit)

The Nova Scotia government has approved the creation of 27 new positions in the Public Prosecution Service.

That's the arms-length agency that prosecutes criminal matters in the province. The new hires will include both Crown prosecutors and support staff and four of the new Crown positions will be designated for lawyers from diverse communities.

Justice Minister Brad Johns said following Thursday's cabinet meeting that the positions address a long-standing need and will be hired soon.

"It was recognized the last time the house was sitting, the union was coming out saying that they were short," Johns said, referring to the Nova Scotia Crown Attorneys' Association.

"We knew that before the union came forward; I mean we've seen an increase in Jordan delays and have been told by previous directors. So it wasn't new, this was something that's been in the works for a while, we just bumped up the priority on it to try to address some of the delays."

Too many new lawyers could overload system

Jordan refers to a Supreme Court of Canada decision that sets firm deadlines for the prosecution of criminal cases. A number of cases across the country have been dismissed because they have taken too long to get to trial. The court set a ceiling of 18 months for cases going to trial in provincial court and 30 months for cases going to trial in superior court or for cases going to trial in provincial court after a preliminary inquiry.

As the minister indicated, the association representing prosecutors raised the alarm on this situation last fall.

The Public Prosecution Service had been asking for around 40 new Crown lawyers. Johns said the government is moving carefully so as not to overwhelm the system.

"If you put too many Crowns on there, that has an impact on the courts, it has an impact on legal aid as well, right? So we have to bring everybody up fairly so that we don't skew."

Johns said he believes this is the single largest addition to the ranks of the Public Prosecution Service since the organization was created. He said it's possible more could be added in the future as long as the whole system can handle the influx.

Rick Woodburn, the acting director of the Public Prosecution Service, welcomed the new additions. He said some of them will go toward making an experimental intake team a permanent part of the service.

"The intake team reviews the files when they first come in and follows them all the way through til they're set down for trial," Woodburn said. "And they ensure that they're viable charges and perhaps maybe even charges that can actually be dealt with ahead of time."

Johns said the new positions will cost about $3.3 million a year.

While the Public Prosecution Service is independent, Johns said he has priorities.

"I wanted to ensure that human trafficking and sexual violence were addressed in these hires, so there has been a direction there," Johns said.

The Justice Department said 17 of the new positions — 11 Crown attorneys and six legal assistants — will support specialized prosecution teams dealing with human trafficking and sexual violence.

Nova Scotia's prosecution service currently employees more than 100 Crown attorneys.