Justice delayed, justice denied, as Alberta begs Ottawa for more judges by Paula Simons, May 16, 2016, Edmonton Journal
Alberta’s court system can’t run without judges. That’s a simple enough statement. It’s just one Ottawa can’t seem to grasp.
There are six vacancies, four in Edmonton, on Alberta’s Court of Queen’s Bench.
There are another four vacancies on the Alberta Court of Appeal.
Empty benches are just part of the problem. In the past 20 years, Alberta’s population has increased almost 60 per cent. We’ve added just one new position to our judiciary to keep pace with that growth and it’s vacant.
The result? We have the lowest number of federally appointed judges per capita of any province or territory. Alberta, with a population of 4.2 million, has 59 Queen’s Bench judges, hearing serious criminal, civil and family court matters. British Columbia with a population of 4.7 million, only slightly more, has 82 such judges. We’d need a dozen more, just to catch up.
“We’re pretty concerned at present about the state of affairs in the province,” Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley said Monday. “It’s definitely troubling to see these matters adjourned.”
Frustratingly, there’s little Ganley nor Premier Rachel Notley can do about that. These appointments can only be made by the federal Department of Justice.
The Harper government failed, over years, to live up to its constitutional obligations to fill vacancies on the bench, with perverse negligence for a party that claimed to be all about law and order.
Yet the new Trudeau government hasn’t fixed the problem the Conservatives created. Since taking office this fall, Liberal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould hasn’t filled one vacancy. No one from the Justice Department would speak with me Monday. But Monday evening, Wilson-Raybould’s office emailed me the following statement in her name:
Minister of Justice Jody Wilson-Raybould hasn’t given any sense of when Alberta’s many judicial vacancies might be filled.
“We have committed to a review of the entire judicial appointments process, based on the principles of openness, transparency, merit and diversity. This review will achieve a greater degree of diversity within the Canadian judiciary, so that it will truly reflect the face of Canada,” it read. “I will work with interested stakeholders, including the judiciary, and Canadians on these appointments.”
“In the interim, our government is moving forward on measures that will facilitate appointments to fill highly pressing judicial vacancies as soon as possible.”
So when might those appointments be made?
No one in Ottawa had answer for me Monday. Ganley’s office said she’s been given no timeline, either.
Of course, social diversity on the bench is a laudable goal. We want our judiciary to reflect the demographic realities of 21st century Canada. But meantime, thousands of Albertans, of all backgrounds, are being held hostage to politics and bureaucracy, and denied access to timely justice.
Anne Kirker, president of the Law Society of Alberta, said civil trials in the province are now being scheduled for early 2018, almost two years from now. That’s a huge problem, whether you’re suing for damages because of a serious motor vehicle accident or whether you’re a business embroiled in a complicated legal dispute, she said.
“People are waiting years to have their cases heard and resolved,” Kirker said. “The system is untenable, to say the least.”
Gillian Marriott, the law society’s incoming president, said things are equally untenable in family court. A few years ago, she said, a judge might hear 40 cases in morning chambers. Now, they often have to rush through 80 matters.
“What I’m hearing from judges is that they don’t have time to really hear, listen, and see both sides,” she said.
“Everybody is being run ragged. The lack of access creates a real bottleneck in family law. What you’re seeing is an escalation of frustration.”
Dan Chivers, who speaks for Edmonton’s Criminal Trial Lawyers Association, said the result is that people accused to crimes end up remanded or under strict bail conditions for months. Right now, he said, the typical waiting time or a straightforward, one-week criminal trial in Edmonton is 11 months.
“It’s extremely problematic,” Chivers said. “There are a lot of judges who work very very hard, coming in early, staying late. They’re doing their part, but there’s a breaking point.”
No, not every problem in our judicial system can be solved by just throwing more judges at it. Our court backlogs are caused by a wide range of factors — everything from lack of access to legal aid, to a lack of alternative dispute resolution systems, to lack of mental health care and addictions treatment. But without enough judges on the bench, we can’t address those problems, either.
We need a pragmatic solution to an imminent crisis — soon. Otherwise, our courts won’t just be at the breaking point. They’ll be broken. [Is it too late? Are Alberta’s courts already broken? Is the damage Harper inflicted to Alberta’s courts permanent? Emphasis added]
[Refer also to:
In a stunning move the Harper government has thrown another hurdle before a high profile Alberta lawsuit that seeks to put the regulation of hydraulic fracturing on public trial.
Last week the Department of Justice appointed Honourable Barbara L. Veldhuis, a Court of Queen’s Bench judge presiding over the landmark case, to the Court of Appeal of Alberta. The promotion effectively removes Veldhuis from the multi-million dollar lawsuit.
Moreover, Veldhuis was about to rule on whether or not Alberta’s energy regulator could be sued by a landowner for failing to uphold provincial rules, protect groundwater and respect the constitutional rights of Canadians.
“This reappointment is not justice but another attempt to delay and exhaust the plaintiff,” Ernst told The Tyee. “But I will not be dissuaded. Most people would give up now. But I’m defending truth and the future of water in this province and I will not quit.”
“I’ve been bullied. My constitutional rights have been violated. The regulator even banished me. I’ve had the RCMP on my doorstep. But I won’t be intimidated by the abuse of power,” says Ernst. [Emphasis added]