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The impact of Budget 2019 on Alberta Justice

  • February 15, 2020
  • Alberta Justice & Solicitor General

The Alberta Justice Ministry’s operating budget has called for a nearly seven percent decrease in spending, but saw the hiring of 50 additional Crown Prosecutors and increased funding for drug treatment courts. What will that mean for Albertans and what changes do you think we can expect to see as a result?

Albertans deserve a better justice system that protects them, their loved ones, and their property. Hiring additional Crown Prosecutors and support staff will give the Prosecution Service capacity to ensure all viable matters can be prosecuted rather than stayed and will eliminate the NDP’s system of “triaging” crimes to be prosecuted. The additional funding will give the Crown the tools and resources they need to protect law-abiding Albertans and help create a faster, fairer, and more responsive justice system.

Expanding Alberta’s drug treatment courts will break the cycle of crime for more Albertans, by helping more individuals with addictions and their families get their lives back on track. On October 31, 2019, the Government of Alberta announced it is investing up to $20-million over four years to expand drug treatment courts. Edmonton and Calgary drug treatment court programs will double their combined total capacity from about 40 participants per year to 80. Further expanding these courts to locations outside of Calgary and Edmonton will help keep more Albertans safe by breaking the cycle of addiction-related crime. This initiative will protect communities while assisting individuals to achieve recovery. Our government strongly supports a firm criminal justice system to protect Alberta’s communities from drug-related crime, but we also believe that alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders can break the cycle of drug abuse, crime, imprisonment, and repeat offences. The $20 million investment in drug treatment courts will protect public safety by supporting recovery and access to treatment and mental health care to prevent future criminal activity. This initiative is strongly supported by the Edmonton Police Service and Calgary Police Service as well as support groups such as Poundmaker’s Lodge, the Adeara Recovery Centre for Women, and the John Howard Society.

The RAPID Force has been welcomed by many rural property owners in Alberta while some, particularly in Alberta’s Indigenous communities, are hesitant. The Government has advised they will work with Indigenous communities to determine the best way to move forward. What will that look like?

The Occupier’s Liability Act and provincial trespass laws are laws of general application that protect the security of all property owners and occupiers from trespassers. The details of the implementation of the changes to the laws are still being finalized, but at this point, laws of general application will continue to apply on reserves. The details that need to be worked out are the fact that there are trespass provisions in federal legislation regarding reserves and where there is a conflict between provincial and federal law, the federal law takes precedence.

The government has a strong relationship with Indigenous Albertans and works to consider support from Indigenous communities for projects that affect them. That is why Minister Schweitzer met with Chief Saddleback and the band councils of the four First Nations at Maskwac├«s prior to the introduction of the RAPID Force and additional initiatives to combat rural crime. He also met with the Blood Tribe Police and discussed the potential long-term expansion of their training program at Lethbridge College. While some Indigenous Albertans may be hesitant, like all law-abiding Albertans, many Indigenous Albertans welcome the government’s initiatives to stand with them and try keeping them safe in their communities against those who wish to do them harm.

Regarding RAPID Force, rural Albertans, including those in Indigenous communities, have been victimized for too long. And we want to ensure they know that we are going to do everything we can as a provincial government to help them feel safe in their communities.

In rural areas and on reserves, police can be stretched across long distances, which may lead to longer response times. To put more first responders in more rural areas, the RAPID Force grants additional roles and authorities to the Alberta Sheriffs, the Fish and Wildlife Enforcement Branch, and Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Branch.

This will provide an additional 400 “boots on the ground” to assist the RCMP and other police services to ensure security is deployed in response to 911 calls as effectively as possible.

What are your comments regarding criticisms of cuts to Legal Aid Funding in Alberta, particularly the fears that cuts will create increased costs due to an increase in self-represented litigants and delay?

Legal Aid is a vital part of a fair and accessible Alberta justice system. Alberta’s funding for Legal Aid supports a five-year Governance Agreement, signed in October 2018, with Legal Aid Alberta and the Law Society of Alberta. This funding sustains and enhances Legal Aid Alberta’s day-to-day operations and service delivery to Albertans.

The provincial government and Legal Aid Alberta are working to strengthen Albertans’ access to core legal aid services in adult and youth criminal law and family law, ensuring people in need have continual and enhanced access to Alberta’s legal aid and justice systems. Legal Aid Alberta’s ongoing redesign of its service delivery model, focused on high priority areas in Alberta’s family and criminal law justice systems, is providing more Albertans with legal services, decreasing legal aid costs. This is strengthening access to legal aid for more people in need of services and reducing the numbers of self-represented litigants appearing in Alberta’s courts without essential legal help. More broadly, Alberta has set a path for a sustainable future with a balanced budget by 2023, protecting and strengthening delivery of core services, including legal aid, and targeting cost-effectiveness and administrative efficiencies in ensuring Albertans have access to important programs and services.

Many post-secondary students and particularly those seeking professional degrees such as law degrees are concerned about cuts to post-secondary education, particularly the removal/decrease of certain financial aides and tuition freezes. For those looking to enter the legal profession in light of those changes, what do you want them to know?

As part of our commitment to give the justice system the tools and resources it needs, we are strengthening the justice system by immediately doubling the number of articling students hired by the government from eight to sixteen and will increase that number to 20 in 2021 – giving the Crown the largest cadre of articling students in the province. We will ensure that we are the highest employer of articling students in Alberta so our law students do not leave for other provinces. We want to ensure Alberta’s legal talent stays in Alberta and that skilled Albertans have the opportunities to live, work, and raise families here. This increase will also ensure Albertans are better served by the justice system by also placing some of the new students in centres which serve locations other than Edmonton and Calgary. More articling students and more incentives for them will ultimately help grow the ranks of the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service, to help make our justice system faster and more efficient. We want to ensure Alberta’s legal talent stays in Alberta and that skilled Albertans have the opportunities to live, work, and raise families here.

Many of the deep cuts to Alberta’s budget and the Justice Ministry’s budget in particular has been based on the premise that Alberta typically spends more than other provinces in a less efficient manner and that many of these cuts are about more targeted spending. What sort of inefficiencies are you looking to eliminate?

The Government of Alberta’s Budget 2019 is a balanced plan to create jobs, grow the economy and protect vital services. Our government is committed to responsible fiscal management and taking a balanced approach to address long-term overspending. We will bring government spending more in line with spending in other provinces, while continuing to strive for better service and outcomes for Albertans.

This budget charts a path back to targeted reductions – and thoughtful reallocations away from inefficient and unnecessary spending. This year’s budget targets for the Ministry of Justice and Solicitor General (JSG) for the coming years shows over a 6 per cent reduction in four years with an estimate for 2019-20 at $1.454 billion.

While one of our goals is to reduce expenditures and be more efficient, we will continue to provide core programs and services and streamline processes in order to better serve Albertans. Some ways to reduce expenditures and be more efficient is through modernizing services, especially interconnected and complicated services like those in the justice system. Modernizing court services by investing in digitizing business practices and services so that they are more user focused, responsive and convenient, whether online or in person, makes the courts more accessible for those who need to access services and improves efficiencies in the system.

We have dedicated $27M in capital funding to create an “E-Court” System to support the digital transformation for court – such as improving the ability to address traffic tickets online, enabling access to justice digitally in areas such as court filings and scheduling, and modernizing court processes. This is key to streamlining operations, increasing efficiency and reducing overall costs while improving services for Albertans.

The goal is to make the courts more accessible for those who need to access services and to improve efficiencies in the system – by introducing technology to deliver more user friendly and convenient services online.

Ongoing planning in general is underway across the department, with more to be done, for implementing these improvements in the coming years.