Calgary

Alberta's judge shortage at 'crisis' level but feds have no timeline for resolution

Canada's justice minister says she's aware of the growing shortage of federally appointed judges in Alberta that has been deemed a "crisis," but could offer no immediate timelines on how to address it.

Alberta court requested 4 new judges in 2008, got funds for 2 in 2014, needs up to 13 to match B.C.'s level

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould said she spoke with Neil Wittmann, chief justice of the Court of Queen's Bench of Alberta, about what he has described as a 'crisis' in the province's justice system due to a lack of judges. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Canada's justice minister says she's aware of the growing shortage of federally appointed judges in Alberta that has been deemed a "crisis," but could offer no immediate timelines on how to address it.

"We are working as quickly as we can to ensure that we make substantive appointments and we get it right," Jody Wilson-Raybould said Tuesday in response to concerns being raised with increasing urgency by Neil Wittmann, chief justice of the Court of Queen's Bench of Alberta.

Wittmann told CBC News last October that the province's courts are "literally at the breaking point right now," due to the shortage of available justices, and in January he released a report detailing how existing judicial staff are working "well beyond capacity."

The chief justice said the system is so backlogged that some alleged criminals could end up walking free.

"There is now a real risk that extended lead times in criminal cases will result in juridical stays of criminal prosecutions," he wrote in the report, which describes the current situation as a "crisis."

Jody Wilson-Raybould on nominating judges in Alberta

6 years ago
Duration 1:15
Canada's justice minister says she's aware of the growing shortage of federally appointed judges in Alberta that has been deemed a "crisis," but could offer no immediate timelines on how to address it. 1:15

In an interview Tuesday, Wittmann said the backlog of cases is already leading to extreme delays.

"For example, in Calgary, if you want a half a day in front of a judge, we're now booking into December 2016," he said.

"In Wetaskiwin, it's February 2017. In Red Deer, it's January 2017 — that's just for half a day of a judge's time."

Wilson-Raybould said she spoke with Wittmann last week and he impressed upon her the "urgency" of the situation.

But, when pressed by reporters Tuesday, the justice minister could not say exactly how or when the problem would be solved.

Alberta in need of judges for years

Alberta has the fewest federally appointed judges per capita in the country and the shortage has only become worse as the province's population continues to grow.

Alberta would need up to an additional 13 new judicial positions in order to match the equivalent level of superior-court judges in British Columbia, Wittmann said in his January report.

He also noted in the report that a request in 2008 for four additional judges ended up only yielding two — six years later — because of foot dragging by the Alberta Government followed by a decision in the federal budget of 2014 that would only allow for half of the requested salaries.

The court's 2008 request for additional judges was the first since 1996 and represented "the minimum required to sustain an acceptable level of service to Albertans," Wittmann wrote.

A court sketch of a Court of Queen's Bench trial in Alberta. (Janice Fletcher)

with files from Allison Dempster

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