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Alberta courts face uncertainty as justice bill scales back preliminary inquiries


Preliminary inquiries will only be allowed in cases where an accused is facing at least 14 years in prison when a new federal justice bill comes into effect Sept. 19.Ian Kucerak / Ian Kucerak/Edmonton Sun


Fewer people facing criminal charges will be eligible for preliminary inquiries prior to trial when a controversial portion of the Liberal justice bill goes into effect this month.

As of Sept. 19, only those facing a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison or longer will be eligible for a preliminary inquiry — a type of pretrial proceeding in which a judge determines whether there is enough evidence to send a case to trial.

The Liberal government’s Bill C-75 scaled back eligibility for the hearings as a means of reducing court delays. Crown and defence attorneys have criticized the move, saying it won’t do anything to ease backlogs in the judicial system.

“If the logic behind it was to fast-track trials and reduce the court backlog, we’re not of the opinion that it’s going to have much of an effect,” said Rosalind Greenwood, a vice-president with the Alberta Crown Attorneys’ Association.

During a preliminary inquiry, the Crown presents its case much like in a trial. At the end of the proceeding, a judge decides whether there’s enough evidence for a properly instructed jury to potentially convict the accused. If so, the case is then committed to trial.

In Alberta, preliminary inquiries are usually held in provincial court for cases that will be tried in the Court of Queen’s Bench, the superior court. Evidence given during the proceedings is typically covered by publication ban.

Some see preliminary inquiries as an inefficient use of court time, as they in some cases cover the same ground as a trial. But both local Crown and defence attorneys’ associations say prelims can help speed up the legal process.

Testing the Crown’s evidence before trial can reveal weaknesses in the state’s case and lead to charges being dropped, said Jordan Stuffco, a defence lawyer and president of the Criminal Trial Lawyers’ Association. Alternatively, it can show an accused what they’re up against and hasten a guilty plea.

“Many times, preliminary inquiries would assist with resolving a file,” said Stuffco.

He added preliminary inquiries help guard against wrongful convictions. While murder cases will still be eligible for preliminary hearings, Stuffco said he’s concerned other serious crimes such as fraud and sexual assault won’t be.

“Lots of these cases will no longer get a preliminary inquiry. It’s definitely going to have an impact.”

Greenwood added prelims can narrow the issues that will be dealt with at trial and thus shorten trial times.

Jordan Stuffco. Shaughn Butts /  Postmedia



In Ontario, there is confusion around who is entitled to a preliminary inquiry after the new bill takes effect. The Toronto Star reported Ontario’s provincial Crown is taking the position that people who already have scheduled prelims after Sept. 19 won’t get them.

Stuffco said that so far, Alberta Justice’s approach seems to be more middle-of-the-road — allowing prelims scheduled before the new law comes into effect to go forward. In a statement, Alberta Justice would only say interpretation of the new rules is “something that will require a judicial decision, which will likely come up during the course of a case.” 

“Until the court has made a ruling on the temporal application of the amendments, it would not be appropriate to comment,” a spokesperson said. 

In a statement, the federal department of justice said: “Where a preliminaryinquiry has been requested prior to September 19, 2019, the federal government’s interpretation of the applicable legislation and case law is that the accused person is entitled to one. To the extent that there is any disagreement on this interpretation, this issue will be before the courts.”

Greenwood said it remains to be seen how the changes will impact Alberta’s courts system. Overall, the percentage of cases that receive a preliminary hearing is quite low — in 2014-15, it was about three per cent of criminal trials, she said.

Regardless, she doesn’t believe the bill will do what it professes to do.

“We don’t think this particular amendment will result in speedier trials,” she said. “If they really want to put a dent … in reducing the backlog … what needs to happen is more resourcing — not only for the court, but for Crown prosecutors and for Legal Aid.”