‘It’s a crisis’: Shortage of Alberta Crown prosecutors means 1,200 serious files at risk of being stayed

Click to play video: 'Shortage of Alberta Crown prosecutors means 1,200 serious files at risk of being stayed'
Shortage of Alberta Crown prosecutors means 1,200 serious files at risk of being stayed
WATCH ABOVE: Crown prosecutors say an understaffed, overworked and exhausted justice system is creating a dire situation in Alberta courts. A number of cases involving serious crimes are at risk of falling through the cracks and there are fears it could get worse. Morgan Black reports – Nov 24, 2021

About 1,200 court cases involving serious crimes are at risk of falling through the cracks because there simply are not enough Crown prosecutors, the Alberta Crown Attorneys’ Association says.

“The best numbers we have, suggest that we’re 47 Crown prosecutors short,” said president Dallas Sopko. “It’s tough to keep an exact total because people are leaving so quickly.”

It’s been a problem for about five years now, he said, and is traditionally even worse in rural areas.

“We’re getting to a point now where it’s a crisis.”

“We do not have the resources necessary to prosecute all the files coming through court and as a result, there are about 1,200 serious and violent cases that are at risk of being stayed due to delay,” said Sopko.

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Click to play video: 'Alberta prosecutors told to consider more plea bargains'
Alberta prosecutors told to consider more plea bargains

Triage protocols were put in place by the Alberta government four years ago. The “Prosecution Service Practice Protocol” document acknowledged hard choices were needed in order to balance rising caseloads with funding and staffing constraints.

“What that has meant is that on the front end, after charges are laid by police, we’ve had to contact a number of victims and tell them they’ll never get their day in court because we just don’t have the resources,” Sopko said.

“It’s shocking and it’s disappointing. It’s disappointing for the victims. It’s disappointing for the communities. It’s disappointing for the police, who’ve put in the resources to investigate the file, and it’s disappointing for us. We want justice to be done.”

Alberta Justice told Global News that as of Sept. 30, there were 39 vacancies out of 377 trial Crown prosecutor positions.

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Spokesperson Carla Jones said “the number of vacancies remains fluid due to numerous factors” but the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service is “aggressively recruiting to fill all vacant positions across the province.”

The Alberta government made a $10-million commitment in February 2020 to hire 50 new prosecutors and support staff.

So far, 38 of the first 40 prosecutors have been hired, Jones said, and plans to hire 10 more in 2022-2023 have been “accelerated” to this fiscal year “because we recognize the importance of filling these positions.”

The government has also more than doubled the number of articling students (from eight to 20) “to help recruit lawyers to ultimately work as prosecutors,” Jones added.

Click to play video: 'Hundreds of Calgarians charged with crimes go free due to prosecutor shortage'
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But if Alberta isn’t a competitive place to work, the Prosecution Service won’t be able to fill those positions, Sopko explained.

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“A prosecutor can expect to make between 18 and 25 per cent more in the first 11 years of their career if they go to B.C. or Ontario, or the federal government.

Adding new job postings “makes no practical difference,” he said.

“The proof is in the pudding. Five years ago the government committed to creating 50 new positions to fill, to deal with the resourcing issues that we have. It’s five years later and only six per cent of those positions have been filled.”

“The government can commit to creating any number of positions … but the practical reality is, until they deal with the root causes of the problem, those positions will never be filled,” Sopko said.

He also pointed out hiring a new lawyer does not fill the space left by one with decades of experience.

“Who are you hiring? When a 30-year Crown prosecutor leaves, who was handling 10 murder files, who are we replacing them with? And the answer is generally going to be someone brand new, someone who needs to be trained, and who can’t handle those files on their own.

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“What we’re seeing is once those people get a few years of experience — we use the time and resources to train them — they become a good candidate for another service and then they leave.”

Click to play video: 'Almost half of criminal cases in Edmonton withdrawn'
Almost half of criminal cases in Edmonton withdrawn

Sopko said his Edmonton-area office has lost decades of experience in the last year and new hires just don’t fill that gap.

“We lost 80 years of service last year and we replaced it with zero years of criminal (law) experience.”

Alberta Justice said as of Sept. 30, there were seven unfilled Crown prosecutor positions of the 100 in the Edmonton office.

There are 11 vacancies in Calgary, Sopko said.

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The workload is crushing, morale is low, and most prosecutors report feeling completely burned out, he added.

“Because we only have a finite number of resources, because of our shortage, we’re picking the most serious (cases) and we’re trying to prosecute those.

“What our concern is, is that Albertans are being denied just outcomes because we’re asking too much of these young prosecutors, both in the number of files we’re asking them to take on and in the seriousness of those files,” Sopko said.

The group representing Alberta’s criminal defence lawyers also spoke out in support of the Crown prosecutors’ association.

“We want the Crown prosecutors office to be fully staffed,” president of the Criminal Trial Lawyers’ Association Danielle Boisvert said Tuesday.

She said the Crown is one of the three main branches of the criminal justice system.

“This is a three-legged stool and if one of those legs fails, the whole system is going to fail.”

Boisvert said the “massive shortage” of prosecutors means overwhelmed employees and delays in the process.

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“It’s causing delays in the resolution of matters. It’s resulting in more matters being set for trial, which is clogging up the court system. And it’s resulting in more trials being resolved at the last minute or collapsing at the last minute.”

She also pointed to compensation, training and retention as key factors in the shortage.

Click to play video: 'Concern growing over number of court cases being dropped in Alberta'
Concern growing over number of court cases being dropped in Alberta

“The impact on the complainants, witnesses and the public in general is that Crown prosecutors are having to make decisions about whether to run files, not based on the strength of the evidence, but rather based on which files on their desk are more important,” Boisvert said.

“To have to call a witness or a complainant in a matter and say, ‘I’m sorry, we just don’t have time to get to your file and we don’t have time to run the trial in your matter,’ would be devastating to many people. That does a disservice to those complainants (and) it does a disservice to the public in general,” she said.

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“That is not how any of us in the criminal justice system want to see matters concluded.

“If a charge is going to be withdrawn or stayed, it should be for the right reasons, not just because of a lack of resources.”

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