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Alberta auditor general urges province to improve tracking to prevent bail, hearing delays

The auditor general is calling on Alberta’s Crown prosecution service to improve bail and trial tracking to prevent delays.

Improving processes will help prevent criminal charges being dismissed by courts

An auditor general report released Thursday found 11 per cent of all first-appearance bail hearings in 2019 exceeded a statutory 24-hour limit. (Ben Nelms/Reuters)

The auditor general is calling on Alberta's Crown prosecution service to improve bail and trial tracking to prevent delays.

A new report released Thursday identifies problems with processes for managing timelines on bail hearings and adult criminal cases. It warns that delays caused by the department could erode confidence in the justice system and even risk judicial intervention.

The report found 11 per cent of first-appearance bail hearings in 2019 went over the constitutionally mandated 24-hour limit.

A quarter of Jordan applications — 66 of 267 — filed between October 2016 and March 2020 resulted in charges being withdrawn or stayed. These charges included first-degree murder, serious sexual assaults and child pornography.

Auditor General Doug Wylie concluded the systems in place were adequately designed but said there are issues of serious concern.

"We believe that improving these processes is important to prevent criminal charges being dismissed by the courts because of preventable delays to bail hearings or trials," he told reporters Thursday.

Tracking Jordan cases

The Jordan benchmark imposes maximum time limits for cases to be heard starting from when charges are laid — 18 months for provincial court and 30 months for the Court of Queen's Bench. It stems from a 2016 Supreme Court of Canada decision. 

While the Crown prosecution service has methods to track and report on cases that near or exceed that timeline, it only conducted one historical Jordan cause analysis in June 2019. The auditor found no evidence that more analyses were completed or scheduled.

The auditor's report notes the 2019 analysis only concluded that police needed to improve their practices. However, a review by the auditor of Alberta-based Jordan stay decisions since then showed "various shortcomings in Crown practices."

The Crown responded to the 2016 Jordan decision with a system that would fit within the constraints of the service's resources. It introduced a triage protocol to prioritize cases and focus on serious and violent crime to prevent significant cases from being thrown out.

Each of the 15 provincial offices must track its cases and report to senior management when any viable cases have been withdrawn. 

But the auditor general also found errors and omissions in many of the required monthly submissions between mid-2017 and mid-2019.

Bail hearing 'over-holds'

Crown prosecutors took over handling first-appearance bail hearings in 2017 following a ruling that police officers could not act on their behalf.

"Over-holds" — bails delayed over the 24-hour limit — ballooned to the point where the Court of Appeal called on the province to fix the hearing system.

A weekly and monthly reporting system for over-holds is now in place. In 2019, this hit a peak of 18.2 per cent in May and a low of 4.6 per cent in December.

The auditor's report notes the Crown has developed action items to address the issue but has done little follow-up evaluation.

A detailed results analysis on bail hearing data has not been performed since May 2019.

Danielle Boisvert, vice president of the Criminal Trial Lawyers' Association, said the auditor report is welcome as Alberta's justice system continues to grapple with timeline issues.

"We can't fix things when we don't understand what the root of the problem is."

Carla Jones, a spokesperson with the Justice and Solicitor General, said the service was developing a plan to address the recommendations. A review of stayed cases is expected by the end of 2021.

She said more than 95 per cent of first-appearance bail hearings since December 2019 were held within 24 hours.

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