Alberta prosecutors meet to consider strike

The Alberta Crown Attorneys’ Association (ACAA) will meet Wednesday evening to consider taking job action. 

The group, representing 380 Crown prosecutors across the province, sent a letter to Premier Jason Kenney on March 22 to address what it called “the crisis in the justice system” and the possibility of taking “drastic steps.”

Copied on the letter to the premier were Tyler Shandro and Kaycee Madu, the current and former justice ministers

The association alleges that “chronic underfunding” of Alberta’s prosecution service is coming to a head and that all attempts to meet with the current and former justice ministers had been rejected. 

“We have been rebuffed by everyone else we approached in government with authority over our working conditions,” the letter states. “Your government’s neglect has forced us to consider job action.”

Alberta Justice would only say that they would continue to work collaboratively with the association about its concerns. 

Association president Dallas Sopko told CBC News that he and his colleagues feel like they’ve run out of options.

“As far as I know, it’s the first meeting of its kind in the 50-year history of our association,” Sopko said.

“We’ll be talking about what our options are, we’ll be getting advice, we’ll be hearing from others in other jurisdictions about their experiences with strike and being on the precipice of a strike.”

The ACAA said there is an ongoing and chronic shortage of prosecutors and a high rate of prosecutor turnover due to crushing workloads and pay that has not kept pace with inflation. 

“We have seen a significant number of prosecutors leave the ACPS [Alberta Crown Prosecution Service] for places like British Columbia and Ontario, to the extent that the ACPS often seems like a farm team for other prosecution services,” the letter states.

ACAA President Dallas Sopko believes Alberta prosecutors have run out of options. (Janice Johnston/Google Meet)

During the 2019 election campaign, Kenney promised to hire 50 new prosecutors. The ACAA said that as of March 22, there were still 37 vacancies. 

“That means that the government is still coming up about 75 per cent short on this commitment three years later,” the letter said, claiming that rural cases are especially hard hit, due to a lack of prosecutors and inexperienced lawyers. 

“Every day, junior prosecutors are tasked with very serious cases, including jury trials involving child sexual assaults with relatively little training,” the ACAA claims. “It is untenable to repeatedly replace experienced prosecutors with brand-new lawyers and expect them to carry the torch.”

Evan McIntyre, an Edmonton criminal defence lawyer and vice-president of the Criminal Trial Lawyers’ Association, said he’s noticed a marked decline in prosecutor morale. 

“The writing’s been on the wall for a few years here,” McIntyre said. “That’s sort of manifested itself as an exodus of many senior people to other prosecution agencies.” 

Thousands of criminal cases at risk of being stayed 

A month ago, Shandro told the Alberta Municipalities conference that the province has no criminal court cases at risk of being tossed because of unreasonable delay. At the time, defence lawyers and prosecutors rejected that claim. 

A Supreme Court decision called Jordan puts hard timelines on what is considered unreasonable delay in getting a case from charge to trial. 

For provincial court cases, the timeline is 18 months while superior court matters have up to 30 months. 

The ACAA letter claims there are currently more than 2,000 serious and violent provincial court cases that exceed the presumptive Jordan ceiling and are at risk of being stayed, including child sex assaults, aggravated and domestic assaults and robberies. They claim another 1,000 provincial court cases outside the serious and violent category are also at risk.

“These numbers do not include the hundreds of serious and violent cases at risk in Queen’s Bench, including murders,” the letter states. 

McIntyre thinks that would only be exacerbated if prosecutors initiated job action after two years of delays caused in part by the pandemic. 

“The impact would be devastating. I think it would be incredible,” McIntyre said. “If there was job action of that nature and further shutdowns, I think you would see many people having to wait months if not extra years to get their day in court.”

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