Nova Scotia

N.S. government passes bill to end Crown attorneys' strike, but will not proclaim it

Shortly after passing legislation to end Crown attorneys' strike, the government announced it would not proclaim the bill and will go back to negotiations with the prosecutors.

Two sides in dispute headed back negotiations

Bill 203 gives Crowns the right to strike but also makes them an essential service, which some legal experts say renders the right to strike meaningless. The government passed the bill on Friday, but did not proclaim it into law. (Pat Callaghan/CBC)

The province and Crown attorneys are heading back to the bargaining table after the government decided not to proclaim legislation that would have stripped the prosecutors of their contractual right to arbitration.

The Crown attorneys walked off the job Wednesday in protest of the loss of that right.

Liberal MLAs used their majority on Friday to pass Bill 203 about a week after it was introduced in an effort to prevent the prosecutors from going to binding arbitration when the two sides couldn't reach a contract agreement.

But just a few minutes after the bill passed, Justice Minister Mark Furey informed reporters his government would not sign it into law and would instead resume contract talks.

The decision followed a request on Thursday night from Perry Borden, the president of the Nova Scotia Crown Attorneys' Association, to meet.

"We advanced what we believe were reasonable next steps to resolve this difference," said Furey.

Borden said the bill shouldn't have made it to the floor in the first place and he and his colleagues never should have had to walk off the job in defence of their rights, but he's pleased the two sides will get back to negotiations.

"Communication dialogue is paramount in these situations and it's unfortunate that so late in the game this had to occur, but I'm happy [and] I think my members are happy that dialogue is happening."

Minister apologizes for comments

The call from Borden to the minister on Thursday followed comments Furey made that day to reporters. He said the prosecutors were more concerned about financial gain than they were the needs of victims.

Borden said he wasn't sure if that's what led to the government's change of heart with the bill.

"If it assisted in getting us here, I'm happy that we're here because of that, but I can't say with certainty how we got here."

Furey said he apologized to Borden and his colleagues.

"My comments of yesterday were inappropriate and in no way reflect the high regard that I have for the public prosecution and the work that they do on behalf of all Nova Scotians," he told reporters.

Furey said it had been a heated week and it led to him saying what he did. "Safe to say, in these circumstances we've all learned a valuable lesson."

Borden said he and his colleagues have thick skin and they were willing at accept the minister's apology.

With the two sides heading back to talks, Furey pledged fair bargaining in an effort to find a solution.

He would not address questions about whether the government would allow the matter to move to arbitration or if the government would proclaim Bill 203 if it can't get a deal it wants.

"I believe that we can work toward a negotiated settlement." 

Borden said his group would bargain in good faith and expects the government to do the same.

Despite Premier Stephen McNeil repeatedly quoting the initial ask from the Crowns of a 17 per cent raise over four years, Borden said the group has come down from that amount and expects the government to move on its offer of a seven per cent increase over four years.

The Crowns continue to maintain Bill 203 is not compliant with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and Borden said they wouldn't back down from challenging the bill, if necessary.

McNeil has said the government is confident in the bill. However he's offered no evidence that the government has a legal opinion that it is compliant with the charter.

Current salaries for Nova Scotia Crown attorneys range from $65,329.68 for someone with less than one year of relevant experience to between $145,825.16 and $149,149.78 for a senior Crown counsel with at least 18 years of relevant experience.

According to salary records, 14 per cent of Crown attorneys make more than $140,000. The majority make less than $130,000. 

The right move

Opposition MLAs said they were pleased by the government's decision, although they said the bill never should have been called for a vote if it wasn't going to be proclaimed.

"To stand in the legislature and vote for a bill and then come out here and say that you're not going to use it, it doesn't really make sense," said Tory Leader Tim Houston.

Houston said he was pleased Furey apologized to the Crowns and believes the change with the bill had at least something to do with public pushback.

"I don't think the public bought that this was about 17 per cent or seven per cent. I think what the public understood is the government broke its contract, the government broke its word."

NDP House leader Claudia Chender said she thinks Furey's comments played a strong role in the decision not to proclaim the bill.

"We really had a shocking issue where the integrity of the public service was called into play by the minister that governs them. It was unacceptable, and as early as this morning I was hearing whispers of mass resignations.

"I think the Crowns were furious, I think they were right to be furious and I think the government realized they had to act."
 

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