Three sexual assault cases have been delayed 10 months because there aren’t enough judges on Alberta’s Court of Queen’s Bench.
“There was no judge available to hear them,” Court of Queen’s Bench spokesperson Michelle Somers said Monday. The three cases, set to be heard this week, have been rescheduled–two in February 2017 and one in March 2017.
“We have done all we could” to coordinate cases, Somers said in a Tuesday email.
“The rest is up to the federal government.”
This isn’t a new problem: Alberta’s politicians, lawyers and justices have been calling on the federal government to remedy a years-long judge shortage that’s only worsened.
There are 59 justices sitting on the Court of Queen’s Bench, but there should be 65: six positions are vacant.
The Court of Appeal is missing almost 30 per cent of its judges – there are only 10 sitting; there should be 14. Alberta has fewer judges per capita than any other province.
“It’s very concerning when any case is delayed, particularly serious criminal matters,” reads a Thursday statement from Alberta Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley.
“The urgency of this situation is clear, we want to see these vacancies filled as soon as possible.”
Somers doesn’t have statistics on how many cases have had to be rescheduled because of a provincial judge shortage.
She said the Court of Queen’s Bench has never had to adjourn a sexual assault trial before.
“It is an accelerating situation,” she wrote in an email to Global News. “Our lead times keep getting longer, which means because the cases keep coming in at the same rate and we don’t have enough judges to hear them, we have to schedule further and further out in time.”
She said court has been working with the federal government, and submitted “business cases with statistics like population increases and increases in number and complexity of cases.”
Alberta’s Court of Queen’s Bench has only gained two judicial positions in the past 20 years, even as the province’s population doubled.
The province’s business case for more judges, submitted in January, says the Court of Queen’s bench is “facing a crisis,” getting new judges added decades too late. The court has cut its dispute resolution services but that isn’t helping the backlog.
The federal government acknowledges the concerns and said this week it is “moving forward on measures that will facilitate appointments to fill these highly pressing vacancies as soon as possible.”
“We have also committed to a review of the entire judicial appointments process, based on the principles of openness, transparency, merit, and diversity,” a spokesperson for federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould said in an emailed statement Monday.
“This review will achieve a greater degree of diversity within the Canadian judiciary, so that it will truly reflect the face of Canada.”
Global News asked the federal government why this review is taking place and how long it will take. We were sent an identical statement from a different spokesperson.
Ganley said she’s spoken with federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould and expects the feds to appoint new judges while it conducts its review.
The Court of Queen’s Bench doesn’t know much about the review, either, Somers said.
“We are told they wish to increase the diversity of appointments to the courts, and to make the process more open,” she wrote.
“In the meantime, we have been waiting for appointments to fill our six vacancies, some for as long as two years.”