Mary Moreau has had a distinguished career in law. One year in to her job as Chief Justice of Alberta’s Court of Queen’s Bench, she has also shown she’s also a pretty good juggler.
“It’s been a really hectic first year,” Moreau said in a news conference at the Edmonton Law Courts.
Moreau says she worries about delays and a lot of moving parts come into play when trying to speed up the court process.
“If somebody would ask what keeps you awake at night, I would say that’s the offender.”
Some civil trials are being booked four years out. New directives from the Supreme Court of Canada mean courts have to hear criminal cases within 30 months and with some cases, it’s a struggle to meet those timelines.
Judges have been appointed. That helps, but not enough, Moreau suggests.
She has spent a lot of time in her first year as Chief Justice looking for “creative” ways to reduce the delays.
One idea takes a page from the airline industry. The courts are double-booking.
“We are enhanced booking,” Moreau said. “I make no apology for it.”
Instead of booking some cases in 2022, for example, the courts are double-, even triple-booking cases in 2020.
Statistics show a certain percentage of all cases tend to be resolved before they make it to trial. When that happens, the courts can move remaining cases around and be able to more quickly hear them.
Moreau says she knows the policy will lead to a few conflicts so the courts have deployed part-time judges capable of hearing cases with little notice.
“We call it the ‘have gavel, will travel’ program. They’re ready to travel,” Moreau said. “On a Friday evening, they may be deployed to Fort McMurray because instead of one trial going ahead, now we have two.”
Scheduling is only one of the ways Moreau hopes to reduce the waits for court. She wants fewer people waiting so she’s pushing enhanced dispute resolution.
One program is called the early intervention case conference. It’s often used in family court. A judge sits down with the parties for a one-hour meeting early in the court process. Moreau says the success rates of these simple, one-hour meetings have already reduced court workloads.
This type of streamlining is what Moreau describes as “entrepreneurial” and “creative.”
She and the courts in Edmonton face one problem that any amount of creativity is unlikely to solve: the Law Courts building itself leads to delays.
The 45-year-old structure is too small for today’s needs, according to some. Moreau says it contains only so many courtrooms capable of hearing a jury trial, so schedulers are forced to spread them out due to space issues.
Governments have appointed new judges but at the moment, there is no office space for them in the courthouse. A public sitting area on the third floor is currently being renovated to create space for the new offices but Moreau says she is limited with what she can do in the building.
She would like a new building in Edmonton but no money has been set aside for one.
A new building would be expensive. Ten years ago, Calgary opened the new $300-million Calgary Courts Centre. Red Deer is building a new $100-million courthouse.
“Our government is proud to build strong, sustainable infrastructure in communities throughout the province,” Alberta Infrastructure said in a statement. “Capital planning priorities for projects are based on submissions from ministries and are then reviewed for alignment with government priorities and available funding.”
Despite the challenges, Moreau says the courts’ creative ideas have helped. Recent statistics encouraged her.
“In Edmonton I saw the first dip in time frames in the last month and I’m hoping that’s not just a blip.”