Nova Scotia

N.S. Crown attorneys plan to walk off job to protest bill

The Crown attorneys’ association is predicting chaos when many of their lawyers walk off the job Wednesday to oppose legislation which replaces their right to binding arbitration with the right to strike, but also designates them an essential service.

Job action begins Wednesday as all but the most serious files are handed off to managers

Perry Borden (centre), president of the Nova Scotia Crown Attorneys' Association, was joined by some of his colleagues at Province House. (Michael Gorman/CBC)

The president of the Nova Scotia association of Crown attorneys is predicting chaos when up to 80 per cent of his colleagues walk off the job Wednesday to oppose legislation revoking their right to binding arbitration.

"There's going to be a lot of gaps, there's going to be a lot of coverage issues and, like it or not, there will be some casualties of this walkout," Perry Borden said during a news conference at Province House on Tuesday.

Borden said 81 per cent of the 90 Crowns who voted on Monday supported job action in the face of Bill 203, which replaces the Crowns' right to binding arbitration with the right to strike, but also designates them an essential service. In their last contract, the government extended the arbitration right for 30 years in exchange for Crowns accepting a lower wage offer.

"Last week the government changed the game, last week they made the playing field unfair," Borden said, standing in the foyer at Province House.

"None of us want to be here."

The government surprised Crowns with the legislation last week after the two sides could not agree on a contract.

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.

The Crowns want a 17 per cent wage increase over four years, which they say would bring them closer to the national average. The government is offering seven per cent over four years.

More importantly, the government has no interest in seeing the matter reach arbitration, where it can not control the outcome.

Rather than being in court, Borden said the majority of Crowns would be at Province House protesting on Wednesday, with Cape Breton Crowns holding a satellite protest on the island. 

Premier 'confident' Bill 203 is legal

Borden said the Crowns have done their best to cover serious and significant files already before the courts, such as murders and sexual assaults. All other files have been given to managers throughout the province and it would be up to the government to determine how the holes are filled when courts open on Wednesday.

Last week, the legislature's law amendments committee heard from labour law and constitutional law experts, as well as the director of the province's public prosecution service, who spoke against the bill.

One by one, they argued Bill 203 is not compliant with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, that Crowns' salaries could not be used to set a wage pattern for the rest of the public service and that the bill would create recruiting and retention problems.

Premier Stephen McNeil told reporters at Province House on Tuesday that he listened to those presentations with interest and agreed with none of them.

Premier Stephen McNeil says he's confident Bill 203 is legal, although he would not say on Tuesday if the government has a legal opinion that it is charter compliant. (Pat Callaghan/CBC)

As he has previously, McNeil said the Crowns' ask is not affordable for the province, and he believes the public shares that view.

"There's many of my constituents who would be happy with a seven per cent [increase], which they're not getting," McNeil told reporters.

Despite being repeatedly asked if his government has a written legal opinion that Bill 203 is charter compliant, the premier would not give a direct answer, instead repeating that "we're very confident that our bill will stand up."

McNeil said "lots of people give advice to government" and they base legislation around that advice.

Tory Leader Tim Houston says the government has backed Crowns into a corner by breaking the contract it signed with them just a few years ago. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

The premier predicted lawyers currently working for government departments and Legal Aid would seek similar raises if the Crowns get what they want, and said that's something the government cannot risk or afford. He said the province would look for "other ways to ensure that justice is delivered" during the strike.

But the fallout from Tuesday's announcement suggests that won't be easy.

A spokesperson for the province's public prosecution services said they are scrambling to find lawyers to cover court on Wednesday and they wouldn't be able to find people to run full prosecutions.

Chris Hansen said they would be putting matters over, for now.

NDP House leader Claudia Chender says that if cases are thrown out as a result of the strike by Crowns it will be the premier and justice minister who are responsible. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

The Nova Scotia branch of the Canadian Bar Association, meanwhile, called on the government to reverse course on Bill 203 and honour the deal it signed with the Crowns.

Tory Leader Tim Houston said the premier is trying to paint Crown attorneys as greedy public servants who only care about making more money.

"I think the Crowns are just feeling a little backed into the corner. They're doing important work on behalf of the province and it's unfair for the premier the way he tries to pick one soundbite and stick to it."

Houston said the premier is ignoring the caseloads of Crowns in Nova Scotia compared to the rest of Atlantic Canada and he's forced them into this situation by breaking his word.

NDP House leader Claudia Chender said the potential effect the walkout will have on the justice system is "terrifying."

"I think we've heard throughout the last several days about the role the Crown provides in our justice system," she said.

"I think it's going to be a sad day for justice and I think it that will reflect directly on this government, which has chosen to unilaterally breach a contract that has, by every expert opinion, has been done illegally."

In refusing to back down, the government is using "disingenuous and untrue" excuses about why it's pursuing the bill, she said.

Borden said Crowns have done their best to cover files that would be affected by the Jordan decision, a Supreme Court of Canada ruling that establishes a timeline in which a matter must be completed. But Borden said it's possible some cases might still be affected.

"The government ultimately will take responsibility for this," he said. 

About the Author

Michael Gorman is a reporter in Nova Scotia whose coverage areas include Province House, rural communities, and health care. Contact him with story ideas at michael.gorman@cbc.ca