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Crown attorneys association urges province to address staffing shortage in northern courts


Katie May / Winnipeg Free Press Files                
Manitoba Association of Crown Attorneys president Jennifer Mann says the provincial court in Thompson hasn't been fully staffed in years despite dealing with the highest rates of violent crime in Canada.


Manitoba prosecutors are calling on the provincial government to do something about a "crushing workload" in northern courts, which they say is putting a strain on the province's entire criminal justice system.


Less than two weeks after a Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench ruling revealed systemic problems with the northernmost bail court in Thompson, the Manitoba Association of Crown Attorneys (MACA) is publicly asking the government to do more to attract and retain Crown attorneys to work in the North.


The provincial court in Thompson deals with the highest rates of violent crime in Canada and has the busiest court dockets outside of Winnipeg, but it hasn't been fully staffed in recent years, MACA president Jennifer Mann said in an interview.


"When you think about (the fact) that you have quite a significant shortage in staffing up there, which has been a chronic and ongoing issue, dealing with some of the most serious crime, the workload and the atmosphere up there is just simply crushing," she said.


The bargaining organization, which represents criminal-law prosecutors as well as Crown attorneys who work in civil and family law in Manitoba, is in the midst of contract negotiations with the provincial government. It says it requested a meeting with Manitoba's justice minister in mid-November, and has yet to hear back.


In a statement, Justice Minister Cliff Cullen said it is not appropriate for him to meet with MACA while negotiations are ongoing.


"We've been really wanting to sit down with the government to talk about what sorts of incentives can be offered to encourage people to go and work in the regional offices, and particularly the North, and to stay there," Mann said.


"What we've seen historically is that if they are able to find someone to go up there, it's generally speaking someone very, very young who's not from the area, often out-of-province, and so they go for a little while and then they leave, because it's such a crushing, difficult place to work."


The Thompson court office deals with a per capita caseload roughly 14 times the size of Winnipeg’s provincial court, according to recent data.


Nine of 12 Crown positions in Thompson are filled, along with three of five Crown positions in The Pas. The three northern courts — in Thompson, The Pas and Dauphin — have had eight failed job competitions in the past two years, Mann said.


Meanwhile, Crown attorneys are still regularly being flown up to Thompson and The Pas to fill in, stretching the prosecution service's resources in the capital as well.


"This is a chronic issue that's had a domino effect across the province. We want to be part of the solution and come up with ideas on how to best address it, but we do think it's time that something has to happen, that change is definitely needed," Mann said.


Erika Dolcetti, a Winnipeg Crown attorney who serves as vice-president for prosecutions with MACA, said the 3 1/2 years she spent working in Thompson at the beginning of her law career were defined by the isolation she felt handling serious criminal cases for a salary she says didn't meet the higher cost of living in the North.


"My very first case up there was an aggravated assault when my friends down here, my colleagues, were doing shoplifting cases. I had my first jury trial at seven months out, and my first murder on my own at a year out, so I did not have adequate mentorship, and nor do they now," Dolcetti said.


Last week, the government posted a job ad seeking a full-time Crown attorney in Thompson for an annual salary of $76,220 to $133,110, plus a northern retention allowance which is around $6,000 a year.


Apart from higher salaries, the province needs to look at incentives such as student loan forgiveness, Mann suggested, to attract Crown attorneys to the North. It's a "public safety issue," she said.


"I would say that right now, things are at an acute stage across the province. We're dealing with high levels of violent crime, and not enough staff. That's the bottom line."


Prosecutors' concerns are being raised after a recent decision from Court of Queen's Bench Justice Chris Martin amplified calls for change to the chronically under-resourced northern court system.


"It is assembly-line justice; the human element was marginalized as an accused, the person whose freedom is at stake and who is presumed innocent, was sidelined," Martin wrote, calling for an independent review of the northern bail courts.