Courthouse delays plaguing communities across Alberta

EDMONTON – What happens when Alberta courthouses can’t keep up with caseloads? When justice is delayed, and sometimes maybe even denied?

The alarm was first sounded over courthouse delays late last year, when an alleged victim of sexual assault never had her day in court. The victim and her family said the case was dismissed because of delays.

Alberta Justice is now looking into that particular case, but according to those who deal with the system, the issue of court delays is one that is happening all over the province.

For instance, since Red Deer’s courthouse was built back in the early 80s, the population it serves has doubled in size to just under 100,000.

Sherwood Park is feeling a similar frustration. Its courthouse has two rooms, but only one is normally used.

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Last year, an impaired driving case there was dismissed under what’s called the “Askov” ruling, which says the accused has the right to be tried within a reasonable time.

In the ruling, Judge Burgess called the Sherwood Park courthouse the worst in the province, saying resources weren’t sufficient for the population.

Though a new courthouse for the booming population has long been in the works, it may not be the whole solution.

“The court is saying, and trying to communicate to the government,’ says Scott Kurie, a Sherwood Park defence lawyer, “that there is a lack of allocation of resources and that’s something that can be cured by allocating more money to the problem – that is, hiring new judges and clerks.”

So is the province doing enough? And is it just the province that needs to help?

The problem isn’t black and white. Depending on the type of case, it heads to either provincial or federal court. But per capita, Alberta has the lowest number of federal judges of any province.

Alberta’s justice minister spent the weekend in Ottawa lobbying the federal government for more.

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“We’d also like to see the federal government step up to the plate and appoint some additional Superior Court judges to keep up with the growing demand and population in Alberta, like they have in other provinces,” Jonathan Denis says.

Others make the argument, though, that has to happen at the provincial level as well.

“The fundamental issue,” defence lawyer Kurie argues, “is a lack of judicial resources in the form of judges, clerks and crowns to handle the amount of caseload volume that we’re seeing in this courthouse on a week to week basis “

Minister Denis is in the process of filling four provincial judge vacancies, and added two new judges last year.

“We are looking at perhaps moving traffic court out of the courthouse that would actually free up space there. I do have plans with the Minister of Infrastructure to keep up buildings,” he adds.

A major announcement dealing with court delays is expected in the upcoming budget. It isn’t, however, expected to include more money for courthouses due to the province’s major fiscal challenges.

Despite the projected $4 billion deficit, those who deal with the system day in and day out say it’s not enough of a reason to delay justice.

“We are quickly approaching a crisis situation,” says Brent Handel, president of the Central Alberta Bar Association. “The problem is not going to go away. So decisions have to be made now. “

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With files from Vassy Kapelos, Global News