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Manitoba adds 25 Crown attorneys to prosecution service amid workload issues


The Manitoba government hopes to add about two dozen more prosecutors and assistants to the prosecution service, which attorneys say has been struggling to keep up amid workload and workforce issues.


Manitoba is committing $3.4 million to the service so it can hire 19 Crown attorneys and six legal staff to support them. Another six Crown counsel positions will be added to the Legal Services Branch to improve the ability to prosecute violent offenders, according to Manitoba Justice Minister Kelvin Goertzen.


"These additional 25 Crown attorneys we believe will help not only when it comes to the workload issues, certainly help when it comes to moving cases more quickly through the court process, but most importantly will help in getting those who are violent offenders off our streets," Goertzen said at a Monday news conference outside the Law Courts building in Winnipeg.


Legal Services Branch prosecutors provide legal advice and defend lawsuits against the government, a government spokesperson said in a statement, adding "currently workload demand has required us to retain outside firms to handle some of this work."


A government spokesperson said there is a 12 per cent vacancy rate in prosecution services. There are 22 full-time vacancies for Crown attorneys out of a total 182 full-time positions, excluding the positions being added to Manitoba Prosecution Services, the spokesperson added.


The announcement comes after the Manitoba Association of Crown Attorneys criticized the Progressive Conservative government for not investing more resources into what they described as a burned out and understaffed workforce that was losing staff to other provinces.


The association represents about 160 Crown prosecutors and 55 civil service members, with others on leave, said acting MACA president Lisa Cupples.


The association filed a grievance in April and said it would enter arbitration over the latest collective agreement on offer from the province, with members voting overwhelmingly against the final deal. In April, president of MACA told CBC News 45 Manitoba Crown attorneys had either retired or resigned since 2020, many of them replaced by junior prosecutors.


There were no Crown association representatives present at Monday's announcement.


Cupples said the association found out about the new positions at the same time media did and is still considering the implications of the announcement.


"Announcing positions is one thing, but filling them is another, and so the other half of this is that Manitoba is not competitive with other provinces," Cupples said.


"We have essentially provided the government with a road map of how they could become more competitive, but they've refused to engage in discussions about that."


Goertzen declined to comment on the state of arbitration negotiations, but said he views the addition of more Crown attorneys to the system as an important part step forward.


"'I've heard the issues around workload … part of that is because we are seeing more arrests of individuals, part of it is to get cases to trial within the prescribed timeframe set out by Supreme Court decisions," he said.


"I actually think increasing the complement is part of a recruitment strategy; folks knowing they are coming into a well-resourced prosecution branch is part of that strategy."


Largest bump in 15 years: Goertzen


The province and MACA previously went into arbitration in 2009 over workload and staffing issues. The NDP government of the day added 53 prosecutors and 29 paralegal and clerk staff at the time. That agreement also ushered in tighter timelines around parts of homicide cases. 


Goertzen said the 25 new Crown counsel positions represents the largest bump to the prosecution service in 15 years.


Manitoba also announced 10 positions for the prosecution service in February. Goertzen said Monday seven of those were for Crown attorney positions and three were for support staff. Six of the seven attorney positions have been filled by existing senior Crown attorneys in Manitoba, he said.


MACA said in April one part of the staffing issue it is facing was related to other provinces luring talented senior Crown attorneys away from Manitoba with higher wages and other perks.


"In speaking to our officials within prosecutions, they believe we will have good success in recruiting and filling these [25] positions, but I also recognize when it comes to senior positions for prosecutors, that is more of a challenge," said Goertzen.


"We've had some success getting senior attorneys come into prosecution, often if they are looking for a different lifestyle than what they're doing in the private bar, but that is a challenge."


The Crown association said it has "no idea" how the province determined 25 is the right number of positions to add.


"It doesn't seem to be based on any empirical data, it just seems to be a random number," said Cupples.


"The fact that they are announcing these Crowns, it confirms what we were saying for years, but they had not consulted with us on this announcement."


Winnipeg city Coun. Markus Chambers, who chairs the Winnipeg Police Board, said having enough Crown attorneys is "of the utmost importance" for the criminal justice system to function effectively.


He welcomed the addition of positions and said partnerships with the province will help address "the rise in violent crimes that we are currently witnessing."


But Matt Wiebe, the NDP's justice critic, accused Premier Heather Stefanson and her Progressive Conservative government of cutting prosecutor positions and not filling vacant positions in order to save money.


"Crown attorneys have said that Heather Stefanson's cuts put the 'public's safety at risk by the Manitoba government's failure to recruit and retain experienced prosecutors.' The PCs refuse to staff the positions we already have and Manitobans know they can't trust Heather Stefanson's fake promises," Wiebe said in a statement.



Based on data provided by the Manitoba government, we initially reported that the vacancy rate in prosecution services was 2.7 per cent. In fact, the rate is 12 per cent, a government spokesperson said Tuesday.
Jun 27, 2023 10:36 AM CT