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Upcoming changes to Alberta traffic courts ‘removing access to justice’: critics

Click to play video: 'Changes could be on the way for fighting traffic violations in Alberta' Changes could be on the way for fighting traffic violations in Alberta
WATCH: A reported overhaul to how Alberta handles driving violations is being met with a lot of criticism. As Tomasia DaSilva reports, some say it’s unconstitutional and will cost Albertans a lot more down the road – Jan 6, 2022

Dennis Paglinawan was hoping to have his day in court after receiving a speeding ticket in the mail.

“When I looked to see what I could do, it was quite disappointing to learn that I wasn’t going to be able to fight the fine or have the fine reduced,” he told Global News. “But I thought that I still wanted to present my case to traffic court to see if I could have the thing thrown out.”

The self-professed safe driver was told he would have to pay in order to have a hearing about the ticket.

Read more: Alberta courts postpone some trials as COVID-19 cases hit record highs

“I just was told it was a policy change: that if you’ve got reason to fight it, that I could appear and challenge it,” Paglinawan said. “But there was no reason given as to why we wouldn’t be able to have fines reduced. It was just going to be a change at the provincial level.”

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It’s a change to how traffic infractions like speeding will be handled in Alberta following the passing of Bill 21, or the Provincial Administrative Penalties Act, in 2020.

But Charlie Pester of Pointts Calgary said these changes have been coming since 2013, calling it “an attempt to take away the Charter of Rights from the public in Alberta.”

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“Everything that people think about in a court system: innocent until proven guilty, gone. You’re now guilty until proven innocent,” he told Global News.

“Equal in the eyes of the court? No, you’re unequal in the eyes of the court because their evidence or accusation is deemed fact unless you can disprove it. And you have to pay them more money to do that.

“Case law that’s been established, gone. Judicial oversight, gone. Crown discretion, gone.”

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Pester said this was the second phase of the Justice Transformation Initiative, to include many infractions of the Traffic Safety Act, “all the offences that a normal traffic court division commissioner would oversee.”

The 2020-2021 annual report from the Ministry of Justice and Solicitor General said the initiative was a joint venture between the ministries of Justice and Transportation, and “is designed to make Alberta roads safer while also restoring justice system capacity.”

Read more: Intersection speeding tickets up in Calgary during COVID-19 pandemic

The first phase of the initiative strengthened administrative penalties for impaired driving.

Pester said the final phase will be all other areas under provincial jurisdiction, including fish and wildlife.

Some of the changes brought in by the Provincial Administrative Penalties Act allow only seven days for a person to respond to a contravention they were informed of, often by mail like in the case of speeding tickets.

Any applications to contest the administrative penalties would require a fine and going in front of an adjudicator, not a justice. Limitations on evidence can be set, but the method of review excludes in-person hearings.

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The Justice Ministry’s annual report claims changes to the Administrative Penalties Information System would “divert approximately two-million tickets from the court system to the administrative model where traffic tickets can be addressed online, eliminating approximately 500,000 in-person visits that Albertans make to traffic courts every year.”

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Sarah Miller, an associate at JSS Barristers, said the combination of fees and limited response time is creating more barriers for Albertans, calling it a Band-Aid-type of solution to the courts backlog problem.

“There’s a lot of issues here that the province is trying to reduce the demand on our court system – which is appropriate and needs to be done – but they’ve done it in a way where they’re removing access to justice,” she said.

Miller added that not immediately allowing people free access to the traffic court system impacts procedural fairness.

“Procedural fairness is really important,” she said.

“If we start seeing that as a slippery slope-type situation, we could have really significant impacts to people… that is what will drive those constitutional challenges and judicial review on the ability to have procedural fairness.”

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

A statement from Transportation Minister Rajan Sawhney’s press secretary said the provincial government previously stated it would expand the SafeRoads program, the administrative adjudication branch of the Ministry of Transportation.

“That review is currently underway,” Rob Williams wrote in an email to Global News. “We hope to make an announcement soon.”

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That still leaves Albertans like Paglinawan having to pay their fine with little recourse to have a justice hear his case.

“If you found $300 on the ground, would you pick it up? Of course you would,” Paglinawan said. “It’s not going to be a fun ticket to pay.”

–with files from Tomasia Da Silva, Global News

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