Edmonton

Alberta 'committed' to hiring 50 new prosecutors, Justice spokesperson says

Critics have raised concerns about Justice department spending in the latest Alberta budget on two key features: Crown prosecutors and court clerks.

Critics say extra money for new hires missing from latest budget

Inside an Edmonton courtroom. (Cort Sloan/CBC )

Despite budget pressures, the provincial government remains on track to hire 50 new Crown prosecutors and fill existing vacancies, an Alberta Justice spokesperson says.

"We remain committed to hiring 50 new Crown prosecutors and support staff over the coming years," Jonah Mozeson, press secretary to Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer, said in a statement to CBC News on Tuesday.

"Existing vacancies are being recruited to, and a recruitment plan is underway for the 50 new positions," Mozeson wrote. "Twenty Crown positions are being added this year."

The additional hires will lead to a "fairer, faster and more responsive" justice system, he added.

"We continue to look for internal efficiencies to save money on costs that do not affect Crown staffing."

Last week's budget included a key objective to hire 50 new Crown prosecutors and support staff over the next three years, at an additional cost of $10 million annually. 

But the numbers told a different story.

The fiscal plan the government unveiled last October said it planned to spend $340 million on Crown prosecution services between 2020 and 2023.

The actual budget only makes a $306.7 million commitment, which is nearly 10 per cent less than the amounts promised just months ago.

Opposition justice critic Kathleen Ganley, who was justice minister in Rachel Notley's NDP government, said the numbers don't add up.

"One of the big plans in [the United Conservative Party] platform was these 50 new prosecutors, but I have no idea how they plan to afford them," Ganley told CBC News.

"In last year's budget, you could actually crunch the numbers and by the time they got to 2022/23, the $116 million would have allowed them to have those 50 Crowns. This year is a pretty big change from that."

 A member of the Alberta Crown Attorneys' Association was equally mystified. 

"I don't have the answer for you," association vice-president Rosalind Greenwood said.

Greenwood pointed out that in addition to the 50 new Crown prosecutors promised over the next three years, 33 Crown positions across the province are currently unfilled. 

"So it's actually 83 positions that we're going to need to fill over the next three years," she said. 

'There's nothing left to cut' 

Concerns are also being raised about proposed budget cuts to another integral part of the justice system. 

The budget introduced last week earmarks $197 million for resolution and court administration services for 2020/21, dropping to $162 million by 2022/23.

"Our greatest concern is that over a four-year period, it appears there's an 18-per-cent cut to court services and resolution services," said Jordan Stuffco, president of the Criminal Trial Lawyers' Association.

Court services include court clerks. 

"The last place we need cuts is in the court services," Stuffco said. "They are worked to the bone. There's nothing left to cut. It's down to a bare minimum and we have grave concern about that."

Court clerks are represented by the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees. AUPE vice-president Susan Slade said more than 100 Edmonton clerks have filed workload appeals. 

"The clerks are already overworked," Slade said. "There have been numerous grievances filed." 

Ganley said she is worried that cuts to administration services could lead to further court delays and applications to have charges stayed under the Supreme Court of Canada's Jordan decision, which specifies timelines for hearing a case. 

"I'm very concerned that we're going to see Jordan matters skyrocketing," Ganley said.

"I think the challenge is going to be if you have a judge and two lawyers and all of your participants there, and ultimately you can't run a trial because you have no court clerk, that's going to be a big concern."  

Crown prosecutor Rosalind Greenwood agreed.

"Jordan is always a concern for us," Greenwood said. "If there are resourcing issues that are causing delays, the inevitable result is going to be more Jordan applications at the end of the day." 

A government website indicates 251 Jordan applications have been filed in Alberta courts between Oct. 25, 2016 and the end of last year. Charges were stayed in 24 cases so far and five applications are pending.

'Modernization and digitization'

Mozeson, however, said the courts can continue to function smoothly even as funding is trimmed.

"We are finding efficiencies by transforming the justice system through modernization and digitization," he wrote in his statement to CBC, noting that $27 million in capital funding has been set aside to support the digital transformation for court business processes.

"Information on these and related initiatives will begin to be available in the coming months. We expect to ensure the same levels of services are provided to Albertans."

The overall operating budget for Alberta Justice and Solicitor General remains relatively stable between the 2019/20 forecast and the 2020/21 estimate at $1.45 billion.

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