December 1, 2016 5:40 pm

‘Swamped’ Alberta police watchdog spurs calls for better justice system funding

The Scales of Justice

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Alberta’s police watchdog and the Crown’s office say they are working together to “help avoid unnecessary delays in the future” after an apparent glitch in communication contributed to a violent criminal case being thrown out over unreasonable delays. Experts suggest Alberta’s lack of efficiency in processing criminal cases has to do with a “chronic underfunding” of justice departments.

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“Delays in appointing judges and hiring Crown prosecutors are the most visible sign of this underfunding, especially in Alberta,” Mount Royal University’s professor of justice studies Doug King said. “I also think that ASIRT has been swamped with investigations so when those two factors intersect there is more of a possibility that Jordan applications are going to happen.”

READ MORE: Alberta murder case thrown out over trial delays, experts warn system on verge of collapse

The landmark Supreme Court of Canada ruling R. vs Jordan set out a new framework for determining whether a criminal trial has been unreasonably delayed. According to the framework, an unreasonable delay would be presumed should proceedings — from the date of charge to conclusion of a trial — exceed 18 months in provincial court or 30 months in superior court.

Speaking at a press conferencing after the ninth of 10 police officer-involved shootings in the city of Calgary this year, the executive director of the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT) admitted its team is experiencing delays in writing and reviewing reports, but said it was “extremely disturbed” when a successful Jordan application was made in the case of Jason Harron.

Harron was charged with a long string of offences, including criminal negligence causing bodily harm, after an incident with police in northwest Calgary in May of 2013. Two seniors were hit by an SUV outside a Crowfoot bank and Harron ended up being blinded after he was shot by police.

“I can tell you we are extremely disturbed that that occurred in such a serious case and if ASIRT contributed to those charges being stayed, we want to know about it,” Susan Hughson said last week.

Watch below from May 2013: In hopes of deflecting judgment and criticism, the mother of Jason Harron, who mowed down two innocent seniors, is speaking out. Jill Croteau reports.

Hughson said ASIRT was never contacted by the Crown before the charges were stayed and she was not aware of a perceived delay in ASIRT’s disclosure (which she said was 20 days within the Crown’s request).

A public affairs officer for Alberta Justice and Solicitor General said that was true, but told Global News ASIRT’s timeline on disclosure did indeed contribute to the charges being stayed.

“But it was one of many factors,” Katherine Thompson wrote in an email. “To help avoid unnecessary delays in the future, the Crown and ASIRT are working together to refine the disclosure process for such cases.”

When asked for a response to Hughson being “extremely disturbed” that Harron’s charges were stayed, Thompson said:

“It’s the Crown’s discretion to enter a stay, in cases in which there is no longer a reasonable likelihood of conviction, including because of excessive delay. This experience is an opportunity to improve the disclosure process on cases in which there are multiple police agencies investigating different aspects of an incident for different purposes.”

King suggested the recent Supreme Court Jordan decision was “almost inevitable” due to a lack of justice system funding.

“While communications between the Crown and ASIRT are important and should be ongoing when delays are a real possibility, I do think it comes down to the provincial government to ensure both agencies are adequately resourced and that sufficient pressure is put on the federal government to fill judicial vacancies,” he said.

“There is both an economic and a social cost associated with the effective operation of a provincial justice system. I do think one of the messages in the Jordan decision by the Supreme Court is that governments have been short-changing the public in this area.”

A September 2016 report card on the criminal justice system called “Evaluating Canada’s Justice Deficit” gave Alberta a C+ grade.

“[The report card found] Alberta has problems with criminal justice efficiency,” co-author and University of British Columbia law professor Benjamin Perrin wrote in an email to Global News. “The percentage of charges stayed or withdrawn in Alberta (for various reasons) was high at 35.3 percent on average and the average criminal case length was also greater than many other provinces at 183 days.”

The report states “Canada is suffering from a ‘justice deficit’ – a large and growing gap between the aspirations of the justice system and its actual performance.”

“With few exceptions, our justice system is slow, inefficient, and costly,” reads the report.

“Canadians…deserve an open and constructive response from the actors administering it, including the police, Crown prosecutors, courts, governments, corrections authorities, victim services officials, and other professionals.”

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