Alberta’s Crown prosecutors consider walking off the job

The Alberta Crown Attorneys’ Association, which represents more than 75 per cent of crown prosecutors in the province, held a virtual meeting Wednesday night to discuss potential job action.

Crown prosecutors represent victims of crime. They work for the community at large and are an integral part of the justice system.

“Our members are beyond frustrated with the government,” explained president Dallas Sopko.

“We’ve been trying to get the ear of our government to address the crisis that currently exists in the justice system for years now.”

During the last provincial election, the UCP promised to hire 50 new Crown prosecutors.

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

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In October 2019, then justice minister Doug Schweitzer was talking about combating rural crime when he said “from hiring more prosecutors to providing more funding for the rural Alberta response team, those are campaign commitments that we made and my direction from the premier is to get them done.”

But things haven’t improved, Sopko said, pointing to St. Paul where he said crime is high and Crowns are in short supply.

He said one prosecutor could be faced with juggling 30-40 trials a week, when a sustainable amount in other provinces is a quarter of that.

“Especially when we’re working big cases, it’s not unusual to be working 70 or 80 hours a week. We enjoy the job prosecutors do, but we’re being asked to do to much and to take on too much, too soon.”

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The association recently wrote a letter to Premier Jason Kenney in a last ditch effort to allow the Crowns to start their own union. It explicitly states: “Your government’s neglect has forced us to consider job action.”

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It outlines “crushing file loads, inadequate mental health supports and uncompetitive compensation” as reasons why Alberta currently has 37 vacant positions — a dozen of those in Edmonton alone.

That work is being piled onto others as senior prosecutors leave for other jurisdictions.

“The risk always is that we come to court unprepared because we don’t have time, or we don’t have the experience to do what needs to be done,” Sopko said.

“What can happen in those cases is an unjust result.”

He said 3,000 cases are already so delayed the accused could walk because of the Jordan ruling from the Supreme Court. The ruling demands justice in a reasonable timeframe.

Read more: Alberta justice minister addresses memo, defends new triage protocol for prosecutors

Another issue? Crowns in Alberta have been triaging cases for five years now – tossing viable cases right off the hop, and breaking that news to victims. It started under the NDP in recognition there weren’t enough resources to handle all the cases.

“We have to go to them and say, ‘It appears a crime was committed against you, but we don’t have the resources, the government hasn’t given us the money to deal with it. So, sorry, you’re not going to get your day in court.’ That’s a really crushing thing for us to have to do.”

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The UCP vowed to eliminate the triage protocol years ago.

“The notion that criminals are getting off Scot-free, simply because we have an inadequate number of prosecutors is, to me, totally unacceptable,” Kenney said in 2019.

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In response to the recent letter, Justice Minister Tyler Shandro declined an interview, but provided a written statement.

“I have instructed the Department of Justice to invite the Alberta Crown Attorneys’ Association to an enhanced consultation early next week to seek ways to collaboratively address the concerns highlighted in their correspondence,” it said.

Sopko said that’s already been done without success in the past.

“It seems at this point to be nothing more than a stall tactic.”

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He adds the only provinces where Crowns are not allowed to unionize independently are Alberta, Saskatchewan and Prince Edward Island.

“It’s not all about money to prosecutors here, but at some point it’s impossible to stay when there’s an offer to do the exact same job somewhere else for up to 40 per cent more with less workload and more supports.”

There are around 380 Crown prosecutors in Alberta. Sopko said the majority of them are could walk off the job within a month, crippling the justice system.

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