Alberta creates 10 new judge positions as Ottawa fills some existing vacancies

Alberta's beleaguered justice system got a helping hand on Thursday, with the province announcing it's creating 10 new judge positions and the federal government filling seven of the existing vacancies.

2 Calgary lawyers, 3 in Edmonton named to Court of Queen's Bench

Alberta Minister of Justice and Solicitor General Kathleen Ganley announced on Thursday that the province will create 10 new judge positions. (Peter Evans/CBC)

Alberta's beleaguered justice system got a helping hand on Thursday, with the province announcing it's creating 10 new judge positions and the federal government filling seven of the existing vacancies.

Alberta Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley made the announcement of the 10 new judicial positions in Calgary, saying nine would be at the Court of Queen's Bench and one at the Court of Appeal.

They would be created through amendments to provincial legislation in the fall, she said.

Previously, only one superior court judge had been added to Alberta's complement in the past decade, even though the provincial population had grown by about 50 per cent. That meant Alberta had the fewest Queen's Bench judges per capita in the country, leading to delays of months longer than usual in cases going to trial.

"Alberta needs these positions," Ganley said at a news conference. 

"What I have heard from advocates and victims themselves is that being dragged through a really prolonged court process ... makes it difficult for them to heal and move on," she told reporters.

A recent Supreme Court ruling helped bring matters to a head by imposing hard time limits on how long a person has to wait to have a case heard in court, prompting Alberta's prosecution service to review an estimated 400 cases for fear that they might be tossed.

"Obviously, no victim would want to see their accuser go free because a matter was stayed, and neither would we," Ganley said.

The increase brings the number of justices per capita in Alberta in line with that in other provinces, according to the province.

Combined with already existing vacancies, the new positions would mean there were 21 unfilled judicial positions in Alberta, Ganley said.

Judges at the superior court level — such as Alberta's Court of Queen's Bench — are appointed and paid by the federal government, but the province administers and pays for all the related support services at the court houses.

Although provinces can increase the number of justice positions on superior courts, only the federal government has the authority to approve and appoint justices.

Ottawa appoints 5 to Alberta Queen's Bench, 2 to Appeal Court

However, in an almost simultaneous announcement Thursday — after months of criticism for not acting fast enough to appoint much-needed judges across the country — the federal government named about 24 judicial appointments, including seven in Alberta.

Two lawyers in Calgary were named to the Court of Queen's Bench:

  • James Eamon, who was in private practice at Gowling WLG's Calgary office.
  • Crown prosecutor Jolaine Antonio.

In Edmonton, Ottawa appointed three lawyers to the Court of Queen's Bench:

  • Kevin P. Feehan, a partner at Dentons Canada LL.
  • George Fraser, a prosecutor with Alberta Justice in Edmonton.
  • Bonnie Bokenfohr, who was interim executive director for the Edmonton Police Commission.

The federal justice minister also elevated two sitting Queen's Bench judges — Justice M.G. Crighton of Edmonton and Justice J. Strekaf in Calgary — to the Court of Appeal.​

Supreme Court ruling helped bring matters to crisis point

Ganley said the federal appointments are welcome help but the judge shortage still exists and the province will take measures to ensure violent cases aren't tossed out because of delays.

Ganley said the recent Supreme Court ruling — the Jordan decision — brought matters to a head by putting hard timelines to make it to trial: 18 months for provincial court matters and 30 months for Superior Court cases.

Delays beyond those time frames are "presumptively unreasonable" and violate an accused's charter right to be tried within a reasonable time, the decision said.

The backlog in hearing Alberta cases has prompted many defence lawyers to give notice that they intend to apply for clients' charges to be stayed following the Supreme Court's R vs. Jordan decision. 

Last week, an Edmonton judge cited lengthy delays for staying a first-degree murder charge against a former inmate of the Edmonton Institution.

And in Calgary, at least two murder cases are at risk of being tossed out after defence lawyers notified the judges involved that they plan to make Jordan applications.

Ganley said there are currently six such cases in Alberta's courts.

"We're still waiting for judges, and more resources, but I can tell you, the rest of us are scrambling now to try to guard against potential miscarriages of justice and, really, public outrage," Dunnigan said. 

Ganley said Thursday that the government plans to work with prosecutors and police to ensure serious cases are heard faster, with other cases moved to dispute resolution or resolved by other means if necessary.

Judicial vacancies are only part of the problem, judge warns

But provincial court Judge Sean Dunnigan says vacancies are just part of the problem.

"They have to have more Crowns to prosecute the cases, they have to have clerks to run the courtrooms and manage the paperwork and there has to be sufficient support of legal aid so the cases can proceed through the system on a reasonable timeline," he said. "Insufficient commitment of resources really contributes to the problem."

At the provincial court, while there are some vacancies, "it's not near the crisis it is in Queen's Bench," Dunnigan said.

Ganley also announced Thursday that the province would give an additional $9.4 million in funding to Legal Aid Alberta, which administers the province's legal aid program.

But Ian Savage, president of the Calgary-based Criminal Defence Lawyers' Association, said that money is just one small drop in a very large bucket. 

"That money, while it might seem a largish number in the overall scheme of things, is a small number in terms of what is needed to keep the legal aid system appropriately funded in our province."

This additional money brings the total provincial funding to the program to $77.9 million in 2016-17.

With files from the Homestretch and The Canadian Press