One of the primary issues faced by courts in Alberta is the amount of time it takes for a case to be heard. Last year Alberta Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley declared the government’s intention to hire 35 more Crown prosecutors, and 30 more support staff to help deal with the problem of court backlogs. Additionally, in 2017 it was announced that in the Federal budget, “the government [had] pledged $55 million over five years, starting in 2017-18…for 28 new federally-appointed judges,” twelve of which, will be positions in the Alberta courts.
Nonetheless, court delays remain a problem and have resulted in particular with “criminal cases…being tossed on the trash heap” according to senior Calgary lawyer. As a result of the 2016 Jordan decision from the Supreme Court of Canada, criminal trials must now follow a specific time framework to ensure that they are not “unreasonably delayed.” Ultimately, the Jordan decision declares (with some exceptions) that the ‘reasonable’ amount of time for a criminal case to be heard is “18 months for provincial courts and 30 months for superior courts.” In response to the increasing amount of criminal cases that are being dismissed because they are not being heard within 18 months, Alberta Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley explained, “she’s not surprised by the frustration because the backlog has been growing for years. The Supreme Court decision means that the courts have had to adapt very quickly, but the system can’t change overnight.”
This week an Edmonton-based lawyer, Avnish Nanda, suggested that a partial response to this problem—particularly in regards to the backlog of civil cases— could be for the province to hire more masters in chambers. Masters cannot decide on the same extent of issues as a judge, but they can resolve a lot of procedural issues, which could help make the Alberta court system operate more efficiently. Civil litigator Avnish Nanda explained that the public might not know this, but “without [masters] nothing would happen.” Nanda has identified this void in the Alberta court system and launched a campaign to increase access to justice in Alberta in the realm of civil litigation by encouraging citizens to email MLAs and Alberta Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley on the topic of hiring more masters. Currently, there are only 11 masters in Alberta— five in Edmonton and six in Calgary.
While there is no easy fix to the backlog of cases filling our justice system in Alberta—particularly in the realm of criminal law—initiatives started by lawyers such as Nanda who participate in the court system frequently, are a good place to start.