Crown attorneys denounce justice system cuts

The organization representing Newfoundland and Labrador's Crown attorneys is speaking out against cuts it says could trigger another inquiry into wrongful convictions.

Wrongful convictions more likely, prominent defence lawyer warns

Crown attorneys are concerned about that new spending cuts will cause significant problems across the justice system. (CBC )

The organization representing Newfoundland and Labrador's Crown attorneys has warned that a wave of spending cuts will roll the province's justice system back to the period before the Lamer Inquiry, which examined wrongful convictions and systemic problems in prosecutions.

"We would have hoped that the expensive lessons of the Lamer Inquiry would not be brushed aside so easily only six years after they were brought to light and addressed," says a strongly-worded letter from the Newfoundland and Labrador Crown Attorneys' Association that is published in Friday's edition of the St. John's Telegram.

Retired justice Antonio Lamer examined the three cases of Gregory Parsons, Randy Druken and Ronald Dalton, all of whom were convicted of murder.

Parsons and Druken were declared wrongfully convicted, while Lamer looked at why Dalton waited years in prison for the second trial that would clear his name in his wife's death.

Cuts will reduce abilities of lawyers, says letter

Justice Minister Darin King has maintained since the March 26 budget that the cuts will not pose hardship in the justice system.

But the Crown Attorneys' Association's letter paints a different picture.

"Recent personnel decisions will result in an immediate and significant reduction in the ability of the remaining Crowns to complete all their duties to the standard that we, the courts and the public expect," the letter says.

"The increased workload will lead to a further reduction in personnel as experienced Crowns opt to leave to avoid doing a sub-par job and exposing themselves and the department to the possibility of another inquiry that cost the government a little over $11 million in costs and payouts," the letter says.

The association maintains that the positions of four Crown attorneys in St. John's and one in central Newfoundland were eliminated. As well, it says that the prosecutors' office is under strain because of a hiring freeze and departures, affecting the offices in St. John's, Corner Brook and Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

"These staffing shortages have resulted in significant workload increases for these offices," the association's executive wrote in the letter.

Details on legal aid cuts released

Legal Aid also had its budget cut by $1.5 million after the provincial budget announcement last month.

The commission was told to cut five lawyers, and officials said they are still unclear whether or not three current vacancies will be filled.

Nick Avis, chair of the commission, said the cut is severe because more than 1,000 cases will have to be handed off to someone else.

"We have a total of 54 lawyers. Not all of them are practicing lawyers - some are in administration. So, you're talking about a 20 per cent cut in your practicing lawyers," Avis said.

"It just translates all the way down to the service to the clients, delays to the clients, delays in the courts."

Avis said he believes the commission will survive, but he is still concerned about the impact the cuts will have.

He said increasing investment in legal aid was one of the recommendations of the Lamer Inquiry.

"Since I was one of the senior counsel with the Lamer Inquiry, I take [the cuts] to heart perhaps more than others," Avis said.

"I see this as flying in the face of the Lamer recommendations."

Avis said he thinks the majority of the blame for the cuts falls with the federal government. He said when Legal Aid in Newfoundland and Labrador began in the '70s, the federal government funded around 90 per cent of its cost. But since the '90s, the federal government  has only contributed 15 per cent of Legal Aid's funding.

Increased wrongful convictions likely, lawyer says

Meanwhile, a prominent St. John's defence lawyer says reduced staffing in the Department of Justice could lead to more cases like those heard at the Lamer Inquiry.

"The system is not going to function as well. I think you're increasing the likelihood of wrongful convictions," Peter Ralph said in an interview to be broadcast Saturday on On Point with David Cochrane.

"I think you're likely making courts [a] less safe place to be."

Dalton, who spent eight years in prison before a second trial could be arranged, told CBC News that the cuts to the legal system are wrong.

"Any cuts that weaken the system can contribute to those wrongful convictions," he said.

St. John's lawyer Bob Simmonds, who represented Parsons, said the cuts will have a significant impact, particularly in delays in the court system.

"Delays are not productive to the accused, the complainant, the system — they're not productive to anyone," Simmonds said.

Minister defends spending cuts

King has spent the last two weeks defending the government's spending plan, and says that claims of layoffs are hyperbolic and inaccurate.

In an interview with On Point, King acknowledged that the government's plan met with concern as government sought input about its spending plans.

He indicated that Donovan Molloy, the director public prosecutions, did not like what he heard.

"Donovan certainly would have obviously have been very strong in expressing his concern with any reduction in service," King said in the interview, which will also be broadcast Saturday.

"But like all others, he's committed to try and make this work and he believes that we can continue to provide the service that's required."