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New protocol for prosecutors won't cut corners in grave cases: justice minister

Alberta defends new protocol for prosecutors

EDMONTON — Alberta Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley says new guidelines to manage court files will not see serious, violent cases like murder or sexual assault sacrificed to save time and money.

"The triage protocol is quite clear: it's never an instance of taking a plea deal just to save time. It has to be based on the fact that there is some sort of challenge in (a successful) prosecution," Ganley said Wednesday.

Ganley was referring to a nine-page memo sent last week to prosecutors and released publicly by her office Wednesday.

The document titled "Prosecution Service Practice Protocol" gives prosecutors a road map on how to balance rising caseloads with funding and staffing constraints.

The document spells out that hard choices are needed, especially given a 2016 Supreme Court ruling that puts firm deadlines on bringing cases to trial.

"The objective ... is to maximize the time available for prosecution of serious and violent crime," reads the document.

"Nevertheless, the combined effect of resource constraints and increased (criminal) charges may lead to a situation where the termination of otherwise viable and appropriate prosecutions is necessary in order to ensure that more serious cases proceed."

The document suggests ways that prosecutors can balance justice with limited resources.

For example:

— prosecutors may wish to push for a plea deal to a lesser charge if a first-degree murder case would be unduly expensive and has a "slim chance" of conviction.

— complicated and expensive fraud cases may not be justified if the accused has already faced sanctions from a regulatory or a professional body.

— for minor offences, just the fact that someone was arrested by police may be enough of a deterrent to future misbehaviour.

Premier Rachel Notley's government has made it a cornerstone commitment to ensure women receive fair and equitable treatment in the justice system.

Ganley introduced a bill Tuesday to extend the time for victims to file civil claims in domestic and sex assault cases.

On Wednesday, Ganley said she is not concerned that sex assault victims may be leery of coming forward over concern their cases could get short shrift.

"(The protocol) is to allow (prosecutors) to concentrate on serious and violent cases, and we think (sex assaults) are serious and violent cases, usually," said Ganley.

Angela Pitt, justice critic for the Opposition Wildrose, said the protocol can't help but make sex assault victims think twice about whether to go to police.

"Sending (this) message, especially to women in this circumstance, is completely unacceptable," said Pitt.

"I'm a little bit sick and tired of this hug-a-thug NDP putting out policies like this."

Mike Ellis, a member for the Progressive Conservatives, said the province has failed to properly pay for and manage the justice system, particularly in funding and hiring Crown prosecutors.

He said victims of crime will pay in resource-oriented triage.

"Whether you're a victim of a theft, whether you're a victim of a perceived moderate or violent crime, everybody needs to be treated with the same amount of respect throughout the justice system," said Ellis, a former police officer.

The triage protocol, first announced by the province last fall, is in response to a Supreme Court decision that sets hard time limits on criminal trials to ensure an accused gets a hearing in a fair time frame.

The limit is 18 months in lower courts and 30 months in superior courts.

As a result, charges are being stayed across Canada, including a first-degree murder case and an aggravated sex assault case in Alberta last year.

Last week, Edmonton's chief Crown prosecutor stayed 15 charges, including assault with a weapon and assaulting a peace officer, under the new protocol.

The Alberta Crown Attorney's Association has reported that a shortage of prosecutors in the last two months has led to stayed charges against 200 people accused of weapons offences and impaired driving.

Alberta has more than 250 prosecutors. Ganley said the government is working to hire 15 more and has created 10 more judge positions at the superior court level.


Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press