Is this how Ex-PM Steve Harper rewarded his beloved “tough on crime” loving base? Lengthy court delays reach ‘crisis’ level, justices and lawyers open 2017 calendars

Wanted: Judges for Alberta by Calgary Herald Editorial Board, October 27, 2015, Calgary Herald
Justice delayed is justice done for no one — not the victim, not the victim’s family and not the accused. Yet, the family of Maryam Rashidi, the gas station attendant who died last June after being hit by a truck when she tried to stop a gas-and-dash, will have to wait until April 24, 2017, for the wheels of justice to even begin to turn in her case.

That’s the date which has been set for the two-week jury trial of Joshua Cody Mitchell, who is charged with second-degree murder in Rashidi’s death.

She was hit by a Ford pickup truck after she tried to block the vehicle’s occupants from leaving with $113 worth of fuel that they had allegedly not paid for at a Centex gas station on 16th Avenue. Two days later, she died of her injuries.

The trial wouldn’t even have been set for April 2017, if there hadn’t been a direct indictment filed, and a preliminary hearing had been required first. In that case, Mitchell’s trial would have been postponed until 2018.

This is absolutely unconscionable. But part of the reason for the delay lies with an acute shortage of Queen’s Bench judges, as the Herald reports today. In 10 years, the federal government has appointed just one new judge to Queen’s Bench in Alberta, and on a per-capita basis, Alberta has the fewest Queen’s Bench judges for the size of its population than any other province.

One has to wonder why the outgoing Stephen Harper government, with its reputation for being tough on crime, neglected to appoint more judges in Alberta so that the court docket could be handled more expeditiously. Nobody is well served when trial dates must be set for nearly two years after the crime occurred — and certainly, in the bigger picture, democracy is not well served, either. 

[The ernst versus encana, AER and Alberta government might take 10 times longer or more, if the courts and authorities in power (the oil and gas industry) even allow Ernst access to a trial. Is it lack of judges in Alberta, or is her documented evidence against the three defendants too damning for the legal system to “let” Ernst in?]

Someone who is facing criminal charges has a legal right to go to trial within a reasonable time period. [What about Albertans harmed by the oil and gas industry breaking the law? Breathing toxic air, bathing in and living with toxic frac water and gases venting from their water taps for over 11 years? Or are they not allowed access to justice at all?] In the Rashidi case, for Mitchell to be tried nearly two years from the date of the crime he is charged with, is completely unreasonable. Moreover, witnesses’ memories fade over time and that can seriously compromise the fairness and outcome of any trial.

[What if it takes 20 years for Ernst to get her trial?  Is that justice? It’s already going on nine years.  Is that justice?  Is that reasonable?]

The Justin Trudeau government needs to pick up the ball where the Harper government let it drop. The new Liberal government can start by appointing more Queen’s Bench judges so that the wheels of justice turn faster and more efficiently. It’s not a matter of being hard or soft on crime; it’s about seeing that justice is done in a timely way. [Emphasis added]

Lengthy court delays reach ‘crisis’ level, justices and lawyers open 2017 calendars by Annalise Klingbeil, October 26, 2015, Calgary Herald

Jury trials in Calgary Court of Queen’s Bench are being booked into 2017 because of an ongoing judge shortage across the province.

Alberta has the fewest Queen’s Bench judges per capita of any province or territory in Canada and it’s not just criminal trials that are being affected by the lack of judges. 

“We hear everything. We hear civil cases, we hear commercial cases, we hear family cases, we do administrative law, judicial reviews of tribunals and so on. Those wait times are also backing up significantly,” said Court of Queen’s Bench Chief Justice Neil Wittmann.

“I would classify it as a crisis because the public, in a country like ours, is entitled to some sort of timeliness.”

Wittmann said in Calgary, jury trials are currently being booked into 2017, while jury trials in Edmonton are being booked for the end of 2016.

The federal government is responsible for appointing Queen’s Bench justices.

The number of judges in this province has remained relatively stagnant despite a rapidly growing population, massive volume increases in Alberta courts, and ongoing requests for more staff.

Only one full-time Queen’s Bench justice position has been added in Alberta since 1996.

Wittmann said the position was filled this summer after two of four requested judicial positions were funded in 2014 by the federal government.

He hopes the second position that received funding will be filled by the end of this year but believes at least a dozen more full-time judges are needed to keep up with the backlog and avoid judicial stays, which have already happened.

“Our primary concern is to serve the public in the judicial role. To do that in this day in age, we need resources,” Wittmann said.

Wittmann said as soon as the new federal government announces its minister of justice, he will plead with that person for more Queen’s Bench judges in Alberta.

Calgary lawyer Dalton McGrath agreed more appointments of superior court judges are desperately needed.

“It’s at a crisis point at this stage because the justices of the Court of Queen’s Bench are working far beyond their capacity,” he said.

“It’s frustrating for everyone involved including lawyers, justices and the public.”

McGrath said the shortage comes with a number of negative societal effects including delays in family law matters involving the welfare of children, the inability to settle commercial and other disputes, and delays in criminal matters, which can result in the stay of prosecution of accused parties.

“Access to justice is of fundamental importance to democracy,” he said.

McGrath believes the shortage of judges even has negative impacts on the economy and Alberta’s business-oriented reputation.

“Instead of something taking two years to resolve, now it’s taking four to five years to resolve, that’s just on a commercial basis. You look at the reputation of Alberta as being a business-orientated culture, where businesses want to invest in. That’s being jeopardized here if it takes many more years and thousands more dollars to litigate in Alberta than elsewhere,” he said.

[Refer also to:

2015 10 26: A vote for snitch lines, barbaric practices laws by John Morris, Edmonton, Edmonton Journal

Re: “Out of touch with most Albertans,” Letters, S.I. Smith, Oct. 22

The writer takes exception to the Oct. 20 editorial, “A vote, again, for change,” particularly with the implication that Conservative voters do not support an open, tolerant society. Since the reference was to the anti-Harper vote signalling a return to Canadian values, it is by no means clear that Conservative voters themselves were to be included as necessarily opposed to an open society.

Nevertheless, a vote for the Tories was still a vote for snitch lines and for “barbaric practices” laws making things illegal that already were illegal. It was a vote for Bill C-24 that makes my wife, born in this country, a second-class citizen who could be deported without a hearing because the laws of return to her parents’ homeland allow her to take up citizenship there. It was a vote for belittling the religious practices of others.

Since the letter writer does not say, it is also not at all clear whether his or her vote favoured the intolerance, fears and hatreds of the Harper Conservatives, or whether these considerations were trumped by other things such as a misguided belief the Conservatives were good fiscal managers.

2014 12 22 Long court delays unacceptable says Alta Court Queen’s Bench Cheif Justice Niel Wittmann

2014 12 20 Alberta lengthy court delays 'totally unacceptable' Court of QB Chief Justice Niel Wittmann

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