image description

Budget cuts give many reasons for concern

  • February 01, 2020
  • Kathleen Ganley

In this year’s provincial budget, the UCP government has made big announcements regarding 50 additional prosecutors and the 300 additional officers and 200 civilian staff they are forcing municipalities to pay for.

However, hidden in the budget was the fact that resources in Legal Aid Alberta, the courts, and corrections will be reduced - in some cases significantly. In the next three years, Resolution and Court Administration Services (RCAS) - which includes judges, clerks, and all the supports surrounding the Courts - will have been cut by over 20 per cent (the budget for 18/19 was about $207 million and for 22/23 is $158 million). In the absence of a significant change in the way we do business – the completion of E-File will not be nearly significant enough - it will have long-term negative consequences that will lead to an increasing number of matters being stayed.

The UCP government has failed to recognize that the justice system is exactly that – a system. That doesn’t sound like a revelation, but if we don’t treat it that way, any changes will create problems. A change in one part of the system has a huge impact on other parts. If you add or remove resources in one place, you need to properly compensate in other places or the system is out of balance and cannot operate effectively.

The Supreme Court of Canada's 2016 Jordan decision continues to be a relevant factor. At the tme, it represented a significant change in the law and had a huge impact on the operations of the entire system. Previously, adding front end resources such as police without supporting resources later in the system resulted in a slower system, longer wait times, and increased stress on everyone. This slowing had occurred over decades due to increased complexity of matters, a growing population, and political pressure on budgets. Once Jordan was decided, adding more resources at the front end means there may be more charges laid, but without supporting resources, it simply results in more matters being stayed because they cannot be brought to trial in a timely manner.

There are ways to try and deal with the pressures on the system – the triage policy, which primarily focused on early case resolution was one way. There are certainly more that could be implemented, but most require significantly more capital investment than is currently outlined in budget. Even then, they would not be sufficient to provide the savings outlined. In fact, many administrative efficiencies have been implemented by many hard-working employees in our courts, but those have only kept pace with growth.

There is also a lot of room to generate savings in terms of the way police operate. Ensuring more people are placed in affordable housing instead of jail, and identifying and solving the root causes of criminality in other systems would have a huge impact. There are many matters in the criminal justice system that ought to be dealt with by other means. For example, I believe the increase in funding to the Drug Treatment Court is the right thing to do; and while it will help, it is simply not enough. Especially in light of other cuts – cuts to per capita health spending, and a refusal to even provide operating funding to affordable housing buildings being completed, let alone build more units.

To make matters worse, the Minister continues to claim that the current system is “catch and release,” and that we need to be “tougher on crime” by throwing more people in jail. It seems obvious he has no intention of looking at these alternatives to improve the backlog.

To be clear, the addition of resources is necessary. However, simply adding more officers and prosecutors while cutting court resources will only put more people into the justice system with nowhere for them to go. Without support to the courts and Legal Aid, more matters will be stayed.

This worries me. I worry about how it will be framed. I worry that when an increasing number of matters are stayed, the government will try to turn that anger on the courts and the legal profession generally. I believe we must acknowledge that the present system has challenges which we must work to address – but cuts to courts, Legal Aid, affordable housing, and other social supports will take us in the wrong direction.

It often seems that the Minister is more concerned with scoring political points that may cause the system to grind to a halt. Instead, we need to work together to find real solutions that keep the system balanced.

I acknowledge that this brief article by no means deals will all the issues the budget creates. For instance, unless the Minister intends to reverse his “tough on crime” stance, there is no way to achieve the savings intended for corrections. Factor in the cuts to Legal Aid, and the layoff of one third of the civil lawyers in the government, and there are many reasons for concern.

The Minister has taken the position that he is “not responsible” for answering for the budget in the out years. I disagree completely – one of a Minister’s most important responsibilities is determining how to operate within Treasury Board’s guidelines. The four year outlook can be found on page 110 of the Ministry fiscal plans. The documents are available online; I would encourage you to take a look, compare the numbers to past years, and draw your own conclusions.

Kathleen Ganley is the Justice Critic for the Alberta NDP. She was previously the Minister of Justice and Solicitor General from 2015 to 2019. Prior to being elected to the Legislative Assembly of Alberta, Kathleen practiced in labour, employment and human rights law.