Red Deer's courthouse is so backlogged that cases involving traffic infractions will now be heard at a local hotel.
Starting Tuesday, the Lodge Hotel is hosting traffic court. It's a temporary solution, according to Chris Rickards, president of the Central Alberta Bar Society.
"It should not be the model that you're going to move things out in order to solve the overcrowding problem," he said. "That just won't work."
Since the courthouse was built in 1982, Red Deer's population has approximately doubled.
The facility serves a large area of central Alberta stretching from the province's borders to the east and west, as well as north of Lacombe and south of Olds.
Lobbying for a new courthouse
To properly accommodate the population, Rickards says 16 courtrooms are needed, up from the now seven.
He and recently retired Queens Bench justice Jim Foster are leading the push for a new courthouse.
Foster served as attorney general under the Lougheed government and was a judge in Red Deer for more than 20 years. He says a new building has been needed for decades.
"I understand that governments don't get around to building courthouses until there's a crisis …well, we're there and we've been there for a longtime."
Foster said 40 per cent of his time as a judge was spent on family-related matters. He said it's children who suffer the most when those issues aren't dealt with for months at a time.
"It's very damaging to children, these are little people, no voice and no vote and they're the ones most affected," explained Foster.
Risk of charges being stayed
Another concern with the jam at court is the danger in delaying trials. Anyone charged with an offence has a right to a timely trial. With major delays, prosecutors run the risk of having to stay charges, said Rickards.
"You're going to have things like criminals walking out of the system who are charged with various serious offences who are let go because we don't have enough space to have their trial in a reasonable time."
The City of Red Deer has even offered the province a land swap to accommodate a new courthouse. The current courthouse and land it sits on in exchange for the former RCMP building half a block away. The initiative is being considered by the government as a public-private partnership — or P3 project.
The province wants to combine it with other courthouses, but with a price tag of $200 million, both Foster and Rickards say it's a viable on its own.
"If you have to wait to combine it with other courthouses, who knows?" said Foster. "It's taken 23 years to get their attention on this one."
New courts to cost $200M
Justice Minister Jonathan Denis said the $200-million project is on his radar.
"In the longer term that is one of the locations where we would consider constructing a courthouse."
For the short term, Denis proposes prioritizing the more serious matters.
"It's always a balance between what's in the best interest of justice but also what's in the best interest of the taxpayer," said Denis.
"People expect a business approach to government, people expect value for their tax dollars and that's what we want to ensure when we consider new courthouse construction."
Foster and Rickards hope it happens sooner rather than later.
"This courthouse is supposed to provide solutions," said Foster. "Today this courthouse is the problem."