Having Crown attorneys vet charges before they are laid serves justice
By Greg Dunn
An important change is coming to Alberta’s criminal justice system that should significantly reduce our court system’s caseload.
The recent provincial budget included $30 million in new funding for the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service, including $4.6 million to hire 16 additional pre-charges assessment prosecutors. As Justice Minister Tyler Shandro noted at the time, these new prosecutors will screen criminal charges before they are laid by police in an effort to better use the court system’s limited capacity and ensure the most serious cases proceed with minimal delay.
In neighbouring British Columbia, a similar system has reduced the number of cases proceeding to court by 20 per cent.
The province-wide rollout of the new system is expected to be completed by early 2024. Unlike in B.C. where laying charges is now the responsibility of Crown counsel, police in Alberta will retain that duty, after consulting with a Crown prosecutor.
It is expected a decision will be reached in two days in most cases, although Shandro says the screening of more complex cases could take longer.
This system has already proven itself through pilot projects in Hinton, Canmore and Strathcona County. According to a news report, "At the end of the pilots, all of the detachments and Crown offices asked to continue using the pre-charge process," stated a ministry spokesperson.
It is worth noting that the project led to a decrease of 21 per cent in commenced cases and 29 per cent decrease in criminal charges laid compared to the same time in the previous year and had "little to no impact" on the timeliness of laying charges.
Charges laid by the Crown, not police
Under the new system, prosecutors will recommend to police whether charges should proceed. That decision will be based on the likelihood of conviction and whether pursuing charges is in the public interest. Police will not be obligated to follow a Crown attorney’s advice, but in practice, they almost always do, since the final decision to prosecute lays with the Crown.
The report added that a study found significantly heavier caseloads in the court systems of provinces where police lay charges, versus jurisdictions where Crown attorneys screen charges.
"Large numbers of gratuitous charges waste massive amounts of money and time," wrote criminologist Christopher Williams in the report. “Charging power in the hands of … police officers produces system-wide waste, inefficiencies and state-sanctioned coercion in the form of over-charging.”
British Columbia, New Brunswick and Quebec already have pre-charge screening systems in place, with Ontario considering it also.
“It’s more efficient in terms of streamlining the process and getting rid of weaker cases at an earlier stage,” states an Alberta law professor in a news report. “All we’re doing here is trying to speed up the vetting of that which is going to eventually occur in any case.”
This pre-screening should also benefit those accused of crimes, especially if police have a weak case to support the charges. People in that situation will be cleared much more quickly than before, allowing them to return to their families and regular life without the prospect of prosecution hanging over their heads.
A landmark 2016 Supreme Court of Canada ruling known as the Jordan decision set limits of 18 months for provincial court and 30 months for the Court of King’s Bench for cases to go to trial after charges are laid. Delays that exceed those time limits can result in charges being stayed.
According to information from the province, between Oct. 25, 2016, and Sept. 30, 2022, there were 408 Jordan applications filed in Alberta courts. Thirty-nine of those were granted and 70 more were proactively stayed by the Crown “on the basis they would not survive the Jordan application.”
The court dismissed 124 of those applications, 61 were abandoned, 108 were resolved unrelated to the Jordan ruling and the remaining six were pending.
Crowns welcome the new system
It is not surprising this idea is being embraced by Crown attorneys. As the president of the Alberta Crown Attorneys' Association stated in a news report, "We see it as offering the potential to get files from police in a more ready-for-prosecution state and that it can potentially reduce the amount of work that both police and prosecutors put into files that aren't prosecutable or aren't in the public interest to prosecute.”
"Sometimes these are criminal charges that are not borne out by the evidence on the file," added a spokesperson for the Criminal Trial Lawyers' Association said. "And then it is only when the Crown prosecutor or sometimes the court takes a closer look that they are withdrawn or otherwise dismissed," she said. "And until that happens, they clog down the system that is already pretty strained."
Lengthy trials hurt everyone
This is not the first time recommendations to streamline the justice system have been made. A June 2017 report by the Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs stated that Canada’s criminal justice system “is in urgent need of reform.”
“Delays in criminal proceedings have become a significant problem as it takes too long for many criminal cases to reach a final disposition,” stated the report Delaying Justice is Denying Justice.
“Lengthy trials and multiple adjournments are particularly hard on victims and their families, as well as on accused persons, whose stress can be worsened as the time between the laying of charges and the end of the trial stretches out month after month.”
The report found that when delays become too lengthy an accused’s constitutional right to a trial within a reasonable time has been breached under s.11(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Call us for assistance
Having Crown attorneys advise police on the merits of laying criminal charges is a great idea. It will speed up our court system, save taxpayers money and will result in fewer cases where someone is charged on weak evidence. If you are under investigation or are facing criminal charges, contact Dunn & Associates. We can advise and defend you at every step of the way to ensure that you get fair treatment before the law.