Alberta court backlog delays criminal trials by more than a year, chief judge warns senators

Two of Alberta’s top judges have warned senators that more judges must be appointed to ease a growing backlog that is already seeing new criminal trial dates being set for more than 60 weeks away.

“If a murder case dropped on the desk tomorrow, they’d be looking at trial date in 2018 and that’s the start of the process,” said Senator Bob Runciman, who chairs the committee on legal and constitutional affairs.

Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench Chief Justice Neil Wittmann and the head of the province’s provincial court, Chief Judge Terrence Matchett, spoke about the issue at a hearing in a Calgary hotel on Wednesday.

They said delays are growing in Alberta courthouses and simply filling the current vacancies will not cut into the backlog.

Wittmann told the senate committee new criminal trials are being set for 62 weeks from now, and civil trials needing more than five days of court time could be delayed 138 weeks.

During a break in the hearing, Runciman said the backlog is a problem, given that the Supreme Court has ruled serious criminal cases should be completed in 30 months from the time a charge is laid to end of a trial.

“If you’re looking that far down the road, you’re looking at three, four, [or] five years for the completion of the case and then you start to run into the challenges of the recent Supreme Court ruling, and then you’re going to see cases tossed or stayed and significant numbers of victims lost at sea.”

Calgary police Chief Roger Chaffin told the committee he’s worried about good police work being wasted because of courthouse delays.

“Lots of tests have to be applied to that still, so we’re still hopeful we won’t just randomly have things thrown out, but it’s a big concern for us right now,” he said.

The senate committee will file a report next spring.

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