Nova Scotia

N.S. justice minister blames striking Crown attorneys for cases being thrown out

The head of the Nova Scotia Crown Attorneys' Association said they will contest the government's request for an injunction to end the strike, which is into its second day.

Court will hear government request for injunction to end strike on Friday

Crown attorneys were at Province House on Thursday for their second day of job action in protest of Bill 203. (Michael Gorman/CBC)

Nova Scotia's justice minister is laying the blame for criminal cases being thrown out of court squarely at the feet of what he calls the greed of Crown prosecutors, who are on strike after being stripped of their contractual right to arbitration.

"They are putting their personal financial needs [and] desires ahead of the well-being of victims and survivors, and that's problematic," Mark Furey told reporters Thursday at Province House.

Furey said he's aware of at least two domestic assault cases and several drunk driving cases in the last two days that were dismissed because sufficient Crown resources weren't available. In several cases, victims were present in court and ready for trial.

The minister said the situation is troubling and has to come to an end.

The comments come on the second day of job action by Crowns and a day before a Nova Scotia Supreme Court judge will hear the government's application for an injunction to end the strike.

Although Crowns continue to handle what they're calling serious files — such as murders and sexual assaults — they've left everything else to managers.

Perry Borden, president of the Nova Scotia Crown Attorneys' Association, said he was troubled by Furey's comments, particularly given that he has a working relationship with the minister.

"It's offensive hearing this come from somebody whom I respect," he said. "We put our integrity on the line day in and day out in this province, for this government and for the people of this province."

Justice Minister Mark Furey says the Crown attorneys are putting their personal financial needs ahead of the well-being of complainants in the justice system. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

Although Premier Stephen McNeil would not go as far as Furey, he agreed Thursday that the fault for cases being thrown out rests with the striking prosecutors.

"When victims of crime were expecting to have support in court yesterday, they didn't."

Disagreement over wage increase

The Crowns are protesting Bill 203, which the government introduced last week after the two sides failed to agree on terms for a new contract and the prosecutors were poised to exercise their right to binding arbitration.

The Crown attorneys were asking for a 17 per cent wage increase over four years, while the government was offering seven per cent over the same timeframe. McNeil said the Crowns' ask is unreasonable and unaffordable and so he was not willing to let them go to arbitration.

Although the premier has said he believes Bill 203 is constitutional, he has not acknowledged whether or not his government has a written legal opinion, nor would he say if he would refer it to the Court of Appeal as a reference case.

"We're very confident in our bill and we're looking forward to having it passed."

Furey said the Crowns' actions are "about money in their pocket. This is not about additional resources."

Borden noted that many Crown prosecutors earn less than the MLAs inside Province House debating Bill 203. The starting salary for an MLA is $89,234, while cabinet ministers make $138,280. 

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, with 22 per cent making less than $100,000.  

'A harrowing effect'

In stripping the Crown attorneys of their right to arbitration, the province is instead giving them the right to strike while also classifying them as an essential service.

An essential service agreement would dictate how many lawyers must continue working during any future job action.

Last week, the director of public prosecutions for the province told a legislative committee the terms of that arrangement essentially make the right to strike meaningless.

The filing from the province for the injunction said the strike is having a "harrowing effect on the criminal justice system in this province."

'A common law right'

Borden said the prosecutors would contest the government's request for an injunction.

"We are not going to just accept it on its merits. It's our belief that this is a peaceful protest, it's a political protest, and we have a right — a common-law right — to be out here," said Borden.

Bill 203 is likely to pass sometime on Friday, as the Liberal government uses its majority to move the legislation through Province House. At that point, the Crowns would no longer be in a legal strike position.

Borden said it's unlikely the lawyers, who are charged with being advocates for justice, would contravene the law although he said they would meet as a collective to review their options.

'A cheap, cynical ploy'

In the House, Tory Leader Tim Houston said many people might focus on the premier's talking points about the size of the requested raise, but that isn't the issue. The issue is the government signed a contract and is now backing out of it because the premier no longer likes the terms of the agreement, he said.

"This government affixed the seal of the province of Nova Scotia to words on a paper and said, 'We will honour these words,' and at the very first opportunity, the very first time they were asked to honour their own words, they refused."

That's why people don't trust politicians, said Houston.

"Because why should they, when a politician gives their word and signs it in ink and then turns their back on them?"

NDP Leader Gary Burrill said the premier and Furey are doing to the Crowns what they've done previously with doctors, teachers and other public servants by criticizing and denigrating them during negotiations in order to play them off of people who have less.

"I think it is a cheap, cynical ploy on their part to curry political favour by counterposing themselves to people who have jobs with good benefits and pensions. I think of it as below the dignity of a government."

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