Changes to bail hearings begin in Alberta 2 years after RCMP officer killed
Pilot project that sees prosecutors staffing bail hearings instead of police starts in Edmonton
Major changes to Alberta's bail system began Monday, nearly two years after RCMP Const. Dave Wynn was killed by a man who had been released on bail despite having a lengthy criminal record.
The pilot project — which starts in Edmonton and will be re-evaluated after about three months — will see Crown prosecutors attend bail hearings instead of police officers.
Wynn was fatally shot in a St. Albert casino in January 2015 by Shawn Rehn, a career criminal who was out on bail at the time of the shooting.
Despite having more that 30 outstanding charges, Rehn was released without his criminal history being presented by the police officer who conducted the bail hearing.
Now, instead of a 24 hour bail system where accused offenders go before a justice of the peace no matter what time of day or night, the new hours are 8:00 a.m. to midnight.
Legal Aid Alberta is also participating in the project for the first month, funding a duty counsel lawyer to be available between 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
But there is concern among defence lawyers that accused people now have less access to justice — especially between 4:00 p.m. and 8:00 a.m.
"It was an unfair situation as it was when unrepresented accused were having to plead their own case for bail, previously up against a police officer," said Ian Savage, president of the Calgary Criminal Defence Lawyers' Association.
"Now there is going to be a full-fledged, trained lawyer, prosecutor, working against them and those accused are desperately in need of either private counsel or duty counsel to assist them."
Calgary judge to decide if police can staff bail hearings
The rest of the province, including Calgary, could also adopt the new practices depending on a ruling pending from Court of Queen's Bench Chief Justice Neil Wittmann.
Alberta Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley is seeking a ruling from Wittmann clarifying the legality of the existing process.
On Wednesday Wittmann heard arguments on whether the existing bail system in Alberta — where police represent the Crown and conduct bail hearings — should be considered legal.
If Wittmann rules that police can no longer act on behalf of Crown, the rest of the province will become part of the project.
Wynn's widow Shelley MacInnis-Wynn appeared in front of a Senate committee in June, pushing for an amendment to the Criminal Code that would make it mandatory for prosecutors at bail hearings to present evidence that an accused has a prior criminal history, outstanding charges and a history of failing to appear in court.
Cops ran 60K bail hearings in 2015
In April, a review of the province's bail system — done by former federal Crown prosecutor Nancy Irving — was released.
A person accused of a crime must have their first appearance before a justice of the peace within 24 hours. In 2015, about 60,000 people facing charges in Alberta went before a JP for a bail hearing, according to the report.
Irving's key recommendation was that Crown prosecutors replace police as presenters at bail hearings.
The new prosecutor positions are being funded by Alberta Justice to accommodate the changes including about six Crown prosecutors and several support staff.
Though there are concerns about access to justice after the hours when a duty counsel lawyer is available, Savage says there are some positive aspects to the new system.
Police officers will now submit "bail packages" to the Crown's office who will then provide the same information to private or duty counsel so that both sides are as informed as possible heading into a bail hearing.
Negotiations between Crown and defence lawyers can then occur ahead of the proceedings.
Wittmann has reserved his decision on the legality of police officers continuing to conduct bail hearings.