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Alberta is short on both judges and Crown lawyers at a time when delays have prompted courts to stay cases against people accused of crimes. (iStockphoto/iStockphoto)
Alberta is short on both judges and Crown lawyers at a time when delays have prompted courts to stay cases against people accused of crimes. (iStockphoto/iStockphoto)

Federal government fills four vacant judges’ seats in Alberta Add to ...

The federal government has filled four vacated judges’ seats in Alberta as the province’s judicial system struggles under an immense backlog that has led to a series of cases falling apart, largely due to a landmark Supreme Court of Canada ruling last year.

A former Olympic and professional boxer turned lawyer is among the four Court of Queen’s Bench appointees.

Alberta is short on both judges and Crown lawyers at a time when delays have prompted courts to stay cases against people accused of crimes – something that has also happened in other provinces.

The Supreme Court of Canada set trial deadlines last July in a ruling known as the Jordan decision, which aimed to end what the court deemed unreasonable delays. Provincial court trials must be heard within 18 months of charges being laid, with 30 months being the limit in superior court. There is also a clause for “transitional exceptional circumstance,” which can be used to sidestep these deadlines.

So far, two men – one in Alberta and one in Ontario – have had first-degree murder charges against them stayed as a result of the ruling. At the same time, 200 cases in Alberta were dropped this year because there weren’t enough prosecutors to handle them.

Two of the newly appointed Queen’s Bench justices will be in Calgary, one in Edmonton and another in Red Deer, according to a statement the federal Justice Department released Friday. Ottawa, in its budget unveiled this week, also said it would fund 12 new federally appointed judges in Alberta over the next five years. Friday’s appointments, however, are not new seats.

Filling the four vacancies will help ease the pressure on Alberta’s court system and make the justice process more comfortable for crime victims, according to the province’s Justice Minister.

“It is victims who are waiting to have their accused person go to trial. It is families waiting to figure out who has the kids on Christmas,” Kathleen Ganley told reporters Friday. “It is a really big deal. This is definitely going to make a difference.”

Justice officials in Manitoba have proposed ending preliminary inquiries while other provinces such as Nova Scotia have placed new emphasis on plea bargains.

The key case that ended up at the Supreme Court of Canada originated in B.C., where an increase in judicial stays six years ago led to changes that have somewhat inoculated the province from the fallout of the Jordan decision.

The Alberta government says the province is still short 15 judges in the Court of Queen’s Bench and down one justice in the Court of Appeal.

Alberta, in its 2017-18 budget released earlier this month, earmarked $14.5-million to hire 35 Crown prosecutors, on top of the 15 prosecutors it is already recruiting. The money will also be used to hire 30 additional court support employees. In addition, the province allocated $97-million over four years to build a new courthouse in Red Deer. Alberta expects to run a deficit of $10.34-billion in the coming fiscal year.

Ottawa appointed Marilyn Slawinsky, a provincial court judge in Alberta, to serve on the Court of Queen’s Bench in Red Deer; Ritu Khullar, the managing partner at Edmonton’s Chivers Carpenter Lawyers, to the bench in Edmonton; Michele Hollins, a partner at Dunphy Best Blocksom in Calgary, as a justice in Calgary; and William T. deWit, a partner at Wolch deWit Watts & Wilson in Calgary, as another federal judge in Calgary.

Mr. deWit won a silver medal in boxing at the 1984 Olympics and a gold medal at the 1982 Commonwealth Games. He became a partner at the firm that bears his name in 2000.

Ms. Hollins’s practice centred on civil and commercial litigation, with a focus on employment law. Ms. Khullar, whose parents emigrated from India, specialized in labour and employment, privacy, administrative, human rights and constitutional law.

Judge Slawinsky was first appointed to the provincial court of Alberta in 2015. As a lawyer, she was an expert in conflict resolution and was a family mediator.

“These judges are desperately needed in Alberta and will improve access to justice for Albertans, while relieving pressures on our courts,” Ms. Ganley said in a statement.

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Follow on Twitter: @CarrieTait

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