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‘Boggles my mind’: Alberta law firm sounds alarm as COVID-19 grinds courts to a halt

A jury box is shown in a courtroom at the Edmonton Law Courts building in Edmonton on Friday, June 28, 2019. An Edmonton criminal law firm says COVID-19 restrictions in Alberta's courthouses have led to an untenable situation. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson.
A jury box is shown in a courtroom at the Edmonton Law Courts building in Edmonton on Friday, June 28, 2019. An Edmonton criminal law firm says COVID-19 restrictions in Alberta's courthouses have led to an untenable situation. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson.

A criminal law firm is warning that the extension of measures to limit the spread of COVID-19 in Alberta’s courthouses will worsen a backlog that existed before the pandemic.

Liberty Law  sounded the alarm over excessive justice delays in a recent letter to Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and provincial health and justice ministers.

“Our justice system was already overburdened, backlogged and facing significant delays,” the lawyers wrote in the missive dated May 13 and made public Tuesday.

“The backlog is now more extreme, with only a few cases trickling through the reduced services barriers.”

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Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer’s office was not immediately available to comment.

Liberty Law said even though courts have been deemed essential services, they are not operating that way.

The Court of Queen’s Bench has been restricting hearings to only urgent matters since March and last week extended that measure by about a month until June 26. Jury trials and jury selection won’t resume until at least September.

The Edmonton-based law firm is urging courtrooms to be opened immediately, noting most can safely accommodate everyone who needs to be there.

Partner Brian Hurley said a few court functions have been made possible with the help of technology, but the situation is untenable.

READ MORE: Edmonton malls quiet, barbershops lined up on Day 1 of Alberta’s phased relaunch

“It boggles my mind that I can go to the garden centre. I can go to a menswear store. I can play golf. I can go to the Apple Store,” he said in an interview.

“But I can’t get to court for about 90 per cent of my matters.”

Hurley said the Alberta Court of Appeal is able to function relatively well, but that lower courts in the province are operating at between 10 to 15 per cent of their usual capacity.

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READ MORE: Alberta restricts access to courthouses to reduce spread of COVID-19

He said cases could be dismissed and potential defences lost.

“It is going to create a real mess when we reopen. It is going to cause gigantic delays to every aspect of the court system.”

Once the courts reopen more fully, Hurley predicts there will be a deluge of people in docket court for pre-trial matters that had been delayed, undermining any previous efforts to restrict crowding in courtrooms.

“A cornerstone of any democratic nation is a functioning, independent court system. Our court system at the moment is not functioning,” Hurley said.

“That is a problem for democracy. That is a problem for society.”