Alberta gets new Court of Queen's Bench judges amid 'breaking point' shortage

Despite the announcement of new Alberta's Court of Queen's Bench judicial appointments amid a shortage that's been described as a "crisis," the Chief Justice says this province is still in a "desperate" situation.

Alberta court requested 4 new judges in 2008, got funds for 2 in 2014, but needs 11 more to match B.C.'s level

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

Despite the announcement of new Court of Queen's Bench judicial appointments in Alberta amid a shortage that's been described as a "crisis," the province's chief justice says it's still in a "desperate" situation.

The federal government announced four new judges for Alberta's higher court on Friday, as well as the elevation of two current QB judges who are now appointed to the Alberta Court of Appeal. 

"I'm pleased with the quality of the appointments and welcome them all to the court," said Court of Queen's Bench Chief Justice Neil Wittmann. "The problem I have is that they haven't made enough appointments."

He says they haven't even filled all the vacancies, let alone create new positions.

Though there is a lot of movement, the appointments do not really add to the provincial complement, rather they are all replacements for the judges who are heading to the appeal court and one who became supernumerary, or semi-retired.

On Friday, in criminal court in Calgary, defence lawyer Dick Cairns was not able to schedule a bail hearing for one of his clients and joked that it shouldn't be so difficult with the new appointments.

"We're still in the same position in Calgary," said Justice Beth Hughes.

Queens Bench judges are appointed by the federal government, but only one judge has been added to the province's complement even though Alberta's population has grown by about 50 per cent in the last decade.

"I'm very disappointed that they haven't filled all of the vacancies," said Wittmann. "We're desperate for a full complement of judges."

Alberta has the fewest Queen's Bench judges per capita in the country.

To match British Columbia's ratio, Alberta would need 11 more judges.

Judicial appointments

  • Calgary Court of Queen's bench Justice Sheilah Martin is appointed to the Alberta Court of Appeal to replace Justice C. O'Brien, who retired in 2014.
  • Edmonton Court of Queen's bench Justice Sheila Greckol is appointed to the Alberta Court of Appeal to replace Justice R.S. Brown, who was elevated to the Supreme Court in 2015.
  • Edmonton Provincial Court Judge John Henderson is appointed to the Alberta Court of Queen's Bench to replace Justice Greckol.
  • Edmonton lawyer Douglas R. Mah, Q.C., with the Workers' Compensation Board, is appointed to the Court of Queen's Bench to replace Justice D.R. Thomas, who became supernumerary in 2015.
  • Calgary lawyer Gillian D. Marriott, Q.C., with Widdowson Kachur Ostwald Menzies LLP is appointed to the Court of Queen's Bench to replace Justice Martin. 
  • Edmonton prosecutor Avril Inglis is appointed to the Court of Queen's Bench to replace Justice F.L. Schutz, who was elevated to the Court of Appeal in 2015.

Alberta's justice minister says she's pleased with the appointments and calls it a good "first step" in addressing the province's backlogged courts system. 

"I will continue to work with my federal counterpart, Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, to ensure that Alberta has the appropriate number of federally appointed judges to provide access to justice within the province," said Kathleen Ganley.

But with Greckol and Martin heading to the court of appeal, Wittmann notes another problem.

"We're losing very, very experienced and good trial judges and that's with some regret on our part — but we wish them every success," said Wittmann. 

"The new people, as fine and as intelligent — and I'm sure they'll be very good judges — there's a learning curve in this job so we have to bring people along sooner rather than later to get them up to speed to give the public the service it deserves."

'It's still a crisis' 

Wittmann told CBC News last October that the province's courts are "literally at the breaking point," because of the shortage of 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.

The appointments "barely begin to address Alberta's judicial shortfalls," says Wildrose justice critic Scott Cyr.

"Law-abiding Albertans deserve to know that their justice system will be there for them when they need it," he said.

Canadian Bar Association president Wayne Barkauskas says he plans to raise the issue with Minister Wilson-Raybould in joint meetings that are being held in Vancouver on Saturday.

"It's still a crisis," said Barkauskas. "We still need a lot more."