Prosecutor shortage puts 1,200 court cases at risk, says Alberta Crown Attorneys' Association

About 1,200 provincial court cases involving serious and violent crimes are at risk of being stayed because of a shortage of prosecutors, says the Alberta Crown Attorneys' Association.

Alberta Justice acknowledges 47 of 378 prosecutor positions unfilled as of Sept. 30

Alberta Crown Attorneys’ Association president Dallas Sopko says his regional office has lost 80 years of experience due to prosecutors departing over the last year. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

About 1,200 provincial court cases involving serious and violent crimes are at risk of being stayed because of a shortage of prosecutors, says the Alberta Crown Attorneys' Association.

"Despite the fact that there is a viable case, we're having to tell victims that we just don't have the time and resources to proceed with their cases," association president Dallas Sopko said in an interview this week.

According to Alberta Justice, 47 out of 378 total prosecutor jobs were unfilled as of Sept. 30. 

"The number of vacancies remains fluid due to numerous factors, however, [Alberta Crown Prosecution Service] is aggressively recruiting to fill all vacant positions across the province," Alberta Justice spokesperson Carla Jones said in an email.

The province has committed to hiring 50 new prosecutors, including 20 this year, by the end of 2022-23. The plan began in 2020-21 and is projected to cost about $10 million per year by the time it concludes.

Sopko said creating new positions doesn't help much when existing vacancies are difficult to fill.

Many Alberta prosecutors are leaving for other provinces or to work in the federal service, following opportunities for better pay, smaller workloads and better mental health supports, he said.

Addressing challenges that prosecutors are facing is a top priority for the government, said Alex Puddifant, press secretary to Justice Minister Kaycee Madu.

"We understand the tremendous, tremendous pressure our Crown prosecutors, and we're certainly looking to ensure they're well-supported and receive the resources that they need," Puddifant said.

Cases at risk

The 1,200 serious provincial court cases at risk are on top of many other cases that prosecutors have already dropped as part of a triage policy to prioritize violent crimes, Sopko said.

The association did not have permission to share how many cases in Alberta's Court of Queen's Bench are in danger of being stayed due to delays in getting to trial.

Sopko acknowledged COVID-19 has contributed to court backlogs, but said resources were a problem well before the pandemic. 

The former NDP government brought in the triage policy five years ago as a response to the Supreme Court of Canada's Jordan decision, which put a time limit on waits for trials. 

The Alberta Crown Attorneys’ Association says understaffing and unmanageable workloads have put a number of serious and violent prosecutions at risk of being stayed due to a lack of resources. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

During the 2019 provincial election campaign, now-Premier Jason Kenney promised to end the triage system.

Sopko said the situation is becoming particularly critical in rural communities, where prosecutors have had to tell complainants in cases that range from business fraud to assault to repeat property crimes that their day in court is never going to happen.

"People in those communities aren't getting the justice they deserve," he said.

Puddifant said the province has taken a number of steps throughout the pandemic to try to help ease the burden on courts, including the creation of remote and online processes.

He said the province has increased the number of articling students hired by the ministry and has prioritized placing the students in rural communities to help with backlogs.

"We are actively working to relieve the pressure and hire new prosecutors, new staff and bring on as many hands on deck as we can."

'Crushed under the workload'

Sopko works in an office that serves communities surrounding Edmonton. He said that in the last year, his office has lost 80 years of experience, and new hires have no experience.

"While every organization has to bring in new people when you are consistently and chronically over a period of five years, replacing people with 30 years of experience with people with none — eventually, you end up in the critical situation that we're in," he said.

Alberta Crown Attorneys’ Association Edmonton vice-president Breena Smith says morale in Crown prosecution offices is very low as many lawyers are opting to leave the service. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

In Edmonton, turnover is high and morale is "really bad," said Breena Smith, the association's Edmonton-vice president.

The Edmonton office currently has about 90 prosecutors. Seventeen of them were hired in the past year, but 13 people have left in the meantime, Smith said. And while the new lawyers are keen and work hard, it puts them in a difficult position.

"You are continually being crushed under the workload that's being expected of you, and often for many of these prosecutors, it's files that are above their experience, their level of knowledge at this point in time in their careers," Smith said.

And with working conditions the way they are, even the newest hires aren't sticking around for long, she said. 

"Essentially Alberta's becoming a training ground to then supply other prosecution services," Smith said. "Because after a couple of years of dealing with the situation in Alberta, they see a better situation somewhere else."