Alberta's lack of judges means long delays -- and sometimes abandoned charges
Published Thursday, October 13, 2016 11:20PM EDT
An Edmonton man accused of first-degree murder in a prison stabbing had his case thrown out earlier this week because a judge ruled that it took Alberta’s court system too long to start the trial.
Lance Matthew Regan, 29, was set to stand trial next week for the stabbing death of fellow inmate Mason Tex Montgrand, who died in 2011. But Justice Stephen Hillier found that Regan’s right to a trial within a reasonable timeframe had “been violated," and so the charge was stayed.
It took more than five years for the case to reach trial. The Supreme Court of Canada determined in July that a reasonable delay is 18 months for provincial cases and 30 months for cases before the superior court.
Legal analysts say the unusual Edmonton case is indicative of a major insufficiency in Alberta’s justice system: a critical lack of judges, who can’t keep up with the demand for trials.
“The judges we presently have are overloaded and we can't do trials unless we have judges. So without more judges, we just can't get trials any sooner,” said trial lawyer Allan Fay.
The reason for the delays is fairly simple, Fay said.
“In my experience, for anything that's going to take more than a day for trial, we are setting into the spring of 2018.”
There are currently 61 judicial vacancies across Canada. Nine of those are in Alberta, which has the fewest judges per capita of any province.
The Senate has taken steps to address the problem. In August, the Senate released an interim report called “Delaying Justice is Denying Justice: An Urgent Need to Address Lengthy Court Delays in Canada.” The report included alarming statistics, such as:
- For homicide cases, the median time from laying a charge to a case’s conclusion is 451 days
- For sexual assault, the median time from laying a charge to a case’s conclusion is 321 days
In its summary, the Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs wrote: “This situation is critical. Canadians deserve a system that is far more accessible and efficient.”
Alberta’s justice minister says the problem “didn’t occur overnight.”
“It's been building up over the course of several decades. So, as a result, Alberta has gotten significantly behind on the number of justices,” said NDP minister Kathleen Ganley.
The issue is expected to be on the table at an upcoming meeting in Halifax of justice and public safety ministers.
Federal justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould said in a statement that judicial vacancies are one aspect of the ongoing court delays, but there are other factors at play as well. She said the government is “undertaking modernization efforts” to improve the criminal justice system and make it more efficient.
"Additional appointments will be announced in the near future," Wilson-Raybould said in a statement.
A Conservative justice critic says that the longer the government waits, the more opportunities there are for cases like Regan’s to be dismissed.
“If the minister doesn't get out in front of it by stop talking and (starting to) appoint judges, thousands of cases right across Canada could be thrown out,” said Alberta MP Michael Cooper.
With a report from CTV’s Alberta Bureau Chief Janet Dirks