The pressures at the Red Deer Courthouse are not going unnoticed by both legal officials and the public.
There has been recent provincial news that criminal cases and charges are being stayed as a result of staff shortages and because cases have been long delayed – Red Deer is seeing the same thing.
“Red Deer is probably past the crisis point. It’s been an ongoing, rolling crisis for the better part of a year or two,” said Jason Snider, a defence lawyer in Red Deer and president of the Defence Lawyers Association in the City.
There are many contributing factors to this crisis, Snider pointed out. One of them includes a landmark decision that came down from the Supreme Court of Canada (Askov) quite some time ago for delay of cases in the system.
“There was a report that came out three or four years ago which talked about injecting a sense of urgency. But the government authored this report and said we don’t want to be losing these cases based on delay. But then the government put no resources towards the report,” he said. “It’s obvious the government has been playing the game the government plays where they budget for a certain amount and they don’t fill positions and they turn back in the money and they look like they have a savings, but it’s because they don’t fill positions.
“They have been doing it across the province, including in the justice system. They are leaving vacant judge and justice slots, they’re leaving vacant clerk slots, they’re leaving vacant support staff slots in the crown office and they are leaving vacant crown slots. It has put pressure on the entire system. It is the government doing by stealth what they don’t want to do publicly which is under-resourcing the system, deliberately, and by not filling positions that are there and not approving hiring.”
Another contributing factor to the crisis Snider said is that over the last 10 years, Red Deer has seen a boom in population with no extra supports being allocated to the local justice system.
“Red Deer has three Court of Queen’s Bench positions allocated to it. Last summer Justice (Kirk) Sisson announced he was going to retire. The federal government put out a circular to the legal community saying there are openings coming, please apply. They did that publicly in the fall and Justice Sisson stopped sitting in December,” said Snider. “No one has been appointed to replace him.”
Snider said there have been instances in Red Deer where cases have been stayed due to delay or lack of resources.
“I am aware of one case being stayed in the Court of Queen’s Bench because they simply did not have a justice to hear it. I am aware of other cases being successfully stayed through applications because of delay. I have had a case withdrawn in the last few months in provincial court because there were not resources to hear it,” he said. “A lot of cases are being stayed or withdrawn for lack of resources. And they are not one-offs – it is happening over and over and over for lack of either crown resources or judicial resources or both.”
To continue adding to the complications of the system, trials in Red Deer, depending on the length, are routinely being set for 2018 or later. “The Jordan case that recently came out of the Supreme Court of Canada set time lines. Those time lines state that a case has to be through the system in provincial court within 18 months and be through the system, if it goes to the higher level of court, within 30 months.
“In terms of time lines in Red Deer right now, most provincial cases are through in 18 months. In the Queen’s Bench system right now we are seeing a lot of cases routinely set beyond that 30 month deadline and that are getting to court and being adjourned that day of because of no justices.”
Snider said another contributing issue is lack of space at the courthouse.
“The Red Deer Courthouse was built for a population of 30,000 people at the time, plus the surrounding area. The surrounding area was probably about 100,000 people at that time. That surrounding area now is probably a quarter of a million people and the courthouse is the same size.”
Local officials, including Mayor Tara Veer, have been advocating the government for quite some time for a new courthouse in Red Deer. There is no new courthouse on the books for the foreseeable future.
“I’m not terribly optimistic that there will be another courthouse built in Red Deer in my legal career, and I still have 20 years left in my career,” said Snider.
Instead, the courthouse will undergo renovations. Some renovations have already begun, and soon the front entrance area will be be made more secure and some movement and adjustments will be made to make another courtroom.
“They have applied a Band-Aid. But the problem with that Band-Aid is that in the next year, or year and a half, they are going to have another courtroom in that courthouse. The court clerks are anywhere from 30-50 per cent understaffed. At the current staffing levels, they do not have the resources to open that courtroom.”
Meanwhile, Snider said the issue seems to be that the justice system is somewhat invisible to most people.
“It’s invisible to you until the case in which your truck gets stolen gets stayed because of a lack of resources,” said Snider. “People are going to find they are not going to get justice for property crime, because property crime is considered lower priority than persons crime.
“The defence bar in general is doing what we can to help the system be more efficient and we’re trying to resolve cases we can resolve and not go to trial. But people who are accused of crime need access to justice just as much as victims of crimes.”
Minister of Justice and Solicitor General Kathleen Ganley was not available to comment at press time.