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‘Something has to give’: Alberta justice system braces for budget cuts

21-11-2019

The provincial budgets that fund court clerks, government lawyers and legal aid are all being cut as part of Alberta's 2019-23 fiscal plan, raising concerns among some justice system workers. ED KAISER ED KAISER / ED KAISER/POSTMEDIA

 

The Alberta justice ministry’s operating budget, released last month as part of the provincial fiscal plan, calls for a nearly seven per cent decrease in spending between the previous fiscal year and 2022-23.

 

In total, the department’s budget — which covers everything from jails to legal aid to prosecutors to government lawyers — is expected to shrink from $1.45 billion to $1.35 billion.

 

The UCP government argues this can be done by modernizing labour-intensive court procedures, including digitizing services as part of an “eCourts” system. It has also set aside money to hire 50 additional Crown prosecutors, and increased funding for drug treatment courts.

 

“This is not about eliminating positions,” the ministry said in a statement. “This is about a more user-friendly justice system that will better help Albertans effectively deal with their legal issues.”

 

Some, though, warn the cuts will still have serious impacts.

 

Damian Rogers, president of the Alberta Crown Attorneys’ Association, said that while digitizing some court systems could improve efficiency in the longterm, courthouse staff reductions will affect the ability of Crown lawyers do their work.

 

“Our association remains concerned that shortages of clerks are affecting our ability to prosecute cases,” he said in an email. “Response times from the clerks to our inquiries are very slow … and sometimes there are no clerks available to open a courtroom, despite all the other personnel needed being on hand.”

 

Clerks themselves are expressing similar concerns. Staff at the Edmonton Law Courts sent a letter to management in early October — before the budget — saying staff regularly forego breaks including lunch. Vacation requests are denied because of a “hiring pause” that has left them short staffed.

 

“This makes our work environment toxic, and often we find ourselves even shorter in staff as members need to take sick leave,” the letter states.

 

“We are merely saying that something has to give. We cannot keep up with the demand the justice system has placed on us and be able to give the level of service the public expects, with the amount of staff we have.”

Crown attorneys, clerks and other Alberta justice system staffers are warning provincial budget cuts risk adding more backlogs to an already strained system. The Alberta justice ministry’s operating budget, released last month as part of the provincial fiscal plan, calls for a nearly seven per cent decrease in spending between the previous fiscal year and 2022-23. Lori Waughtal/Postmedia FIRSTNAME LASTNAME / EDMONTON

 

Alberta government lawyers, who deal with civil litigation and help draft legislation, are also expected to see staff reductions, with the province’s Legal Services budget expected to drop from $56 million to $38 million over the next four years.

 

A senior government source with knowledge of the situation said more that 100 positions could be affected, and that staff were being encouraged to apply for vacant prosecutor jobs. A ministry spokesperson said it was “too early to speculate” how many positions could be impacted.

 

“Multiple options are being considered and no final decisions have been made on how the division will manage with a smaller budget in the years ahead,” the ministry’s Dan Laville said.

 

“This is a very difficult time for all staff in the division … lawyers who are interested in becoming Crown prosecutors have been provided an opportunity to express their interest in those positions.”

 

Rogers said the government is struggling to fill those jobs.

 

“We’re just not getting very many applicants for the vacant positions we already have. Part of that is people know the stresses Crown prosecutors are under, and they know Crown prosecutors’ salaries have been frozen for more than four years now.”

 

“All aspects of the criminal justice system need to be addressed in funding,” he added. “Only addressing the Crown side of things is not going to deal with the backlogs we’re seeing in the courts.”

 

Legal Aid cuts expected

Legal Aid Alberta, which provides legal services for low-income Albertans, is expected to see a $5 million cut under the new budget, according to the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees.

 

AUPE represents about 60 Legal Aid workers, most of whom do intake work assessing whether clients qualify for assistance.

 

AUPE vice president Susan Slade said that additional cuts will further impact a system that’s been backlogged “for years.”

 

“Do Premier Kenney and Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer really think the $5-million cut to Legal Aid funding will help?” Slade said in a written statement.

 

“What we fear most is Legal Aid’s bosses reacting by scrambling to maintain the top-heavy structure of the organization while offloading all the burden caused by the cuts onto the frontlines,” Slade added. 

 

https://edmontonjournal.com/news/local-news/something-has-to-give-alberta-justice-system-braces-for-budget-cuts