Victims of crimes and accused people in the Foothills can expect serious and violent crimes to be handled more quickly over the coming months as the federal and provincial government grapple with finding ways to meet tighter trial deadlines.
The federal government appointed three new judges to Calgary’s top courts last week in a bid to meet stricter trial deadlines imposed this summer.
A July Supreme Court decision, known as the Jordan framework, made timelines for trials to be set. Provincial court trials must be set within 18 months and Court of Queen’s Bench trials must be set within 30 months. If those timelines are not met, the Crown must show that any delay beyond these timelines is a result of the defense or institutional delays.
Delays beyond those timelines could result in local charges being thrown out.
There are six pending Jordan applications in Alberta courts now to have charges thrown out due to delays getting charges to trial.
The announcement of two Court of Queen’s Bench justices and one Court of Appeal Judge in the Calgary court system came during a press conference by Minister of Justice and Solicitor General Kathleen Ganley where she said the Province will create nine new positions for Court of Queen’s Bench justices and one at the Court of Appeal.
Only the federal government can appoint judges to the Court of Queen’s Bench and the Court of Appeal. The Province is responsible for appointing Provincial Court judges.
At the Okotoks and Turner Valley courthouse, cases are heard by Provincial Court judges. Okotoks used to face significant trial delays, sometimes as long as three years, but that has been cut down significantly as a result of several measures, including opening the Turner Valley courthouse and opening a courtroom in Calgary for lengthy provincial court trials from outlying circuit courts.
However, federal Crown prosecutor Nicole Dumaresque said the Jordan decision is still an issue in Okotoks and Turner Valley courts. Some local cases are sent to Calgary’s Court of Queen’s Bench, where trial timeframes are longer.
“It’s mentioned every day,” she said. “Everyone is aware the timelines have gotten much stricter and we need to move the file along.”
Criminal lawyers who work in Foothills courts say they welcome the new judges in the higher courts.
Defence lawyer Stephen Bitzer said he is pleased with the appointment of the new judges.
“There is a significant lack of judges in the Court of Queen’s Bench,” Bitzer said outside Okotoks Provincial Court on Friday.
He said accused people facing charges in circuit courts outside bigger centres, like Okotoks and Turner Valley, who want a preliminary hearing, a jury trial or a trial before a Court of Queen’s Bench judge are sent to Court of Queen’s Bench in Calgary.
An Okotoks case against a woman charged with dangerous driving in the death of bicyclist who was struck and killed will be heard at the Court of Queen’s Bench March 17, 2017. That will be 19 months after the accused was charged by police and will fall well within the Jordan framework.
Bitzer said the Jordan framework is welcome for both the accused people and victims of crime.
“It is unacceptable for a victim and the accused to wait that long,” he said.
Ganley said provincial Crown Prosecutors have been using a number of methods to avoid having cases thrown out of court over delays getting to trial.
“To address these pressures Crown will be focusing on and prioritizing serious and violent cases,” Ganley said. “The Crown is working closely with our police partners to ensure disclosure is expedited and matters can proceed in a timely manner.”
These latest appointments only fill a few of the 18 Alberta’s Court of Queen’s Bench and three Court of Appeals vacancies Alberta has on the book. The federal government has only acknowledged six of the Court of Queen’s Bench vacancies and two at the Court of Appeals.
Ganley said the Province has a business case for appointing more Court of Queen of Bench and Court of Appeal justices with the federal justice minister.
Alberta has the lowest judges per capita in the country.