A senior prosecutor in Alberta stayed 15 criminal cases on Tuesday, saying in Provincial Court that the justice system simply does not have enough resources to prosecute them.
The cases include violent crimes such as assault with a weapon and assaulting a peace officer, and others, such as impaired driving, that Parliament has declared important enough to merit mandatory minimum penalties.
The suspension of the 15 cases in Edmonton appears to be the first large-scale use in criminal justice of a "triage" approach – a system of assigning priority to cases used in health care – since a Supreme Court of Canada ruling in July set time limits for proceedings.
Chief Crown attorney Shelley Bykewich told reporters outside court that she had been suffering sleepless nights over what she had to do.
The move was made under a provincial government "triage" strategy announced in October. The stays are noteworthy because they are the first known cases to be dropped at the Crown's instigation over resource issues, and because of the seriousness of the alleged offences. Most of the previous fallout from the Supreme Court ruling, known as R v Jordan, came after challenges by defence lawyers over unreasonable delay.
And the Edmonton stays seem to be a realization of fears some prosecutors have expressed since the Jordan ruling set limits of 18 months for cases to go from charge to a trial's completion in Provincial Court, and 30 months in Superior Court.
"This is one of the symptoms of a failing justice system, when charges – and we believe they are serious charges – are stayed for lack of resources," Rick Woodburn, president of the Canadian Association of Crown Counsel, who practises in Halifax, said in an interview.
By resources, he said he means judges, Crowns, sheriffs, administrators, defence lawyers and perhaps jails.
"Really, the only people who benefit from a weak justice system are the criminals."
He said he was not aware of any other instance of large-scale stays over resources so far since the Supreme Court ruling. He said if governments do not put more resources into the system, the numbers of stayed cases will grow.
He also predicted that, if prosecutors drop charges for lack of resources, police will think twice about prosecuting some offences.
"It will trickle down into the police, and whether they move forward with charges," he said.
The Edmonton Police Service said in a statement it is disappointed with the prosecution's decision.
"We feel for the victims in these cases and we worry about the reputation of the criminal justice system with the public."
It added that it remains committed to public safety, and suggested its charging practices would not change.
"Ultimately, all files are passed onto the Crown for prosecution. The EPS respects the Crown's decisions on how files are handled in court," the statement said.
The Alberta Crown Attorneys' Association will hold a news conference on Wednesday in Edmonton to talk about the 15 stays and others.
Provincial governments are scrambling to rethink the justice system in light of R v. Jordan. In a Nova Scotia pilot project, prosecutors are making prompt plea offers for low-level crimes, which could rise to mid-level offences, including violent ones. (Mr. Woodburn referred to that pilot project as a form of triage, because the justice system spends less time trying to set consequences for criminal activity deemed to have less priority.)
In Ontario and Manitoba, governments and judges want to eliminate the pretrial screening mechanism known as preliminary inquiries.
In the most glaring examples thus far of the effects of delay, judges have dismissed two charges of first-degree murder, one in Alberta and one in Ontario.
The Alberta government expressly describes its new approach as a form of triage – the process in which hospital staff determines which patients in an emergency room receive priority.
In October, Eric Tolppanen, an assistant deputy minister overseeing the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service, set out the strategy: "The new process uses a 'triage approach' where Crown and court resources are used proportionately with the seriousness of a case, and with the most serious and violent offences being prioritized."
In an interview two weeks ago with The Globe and Mail, Alberta Attorney-General Kathleen Ganley called the justice system "a fantastic thing, one of the greatest achievements of modern life."
But she added: "We can't use it for everything because we'll destroy it through overuse. It's about making thoughtful and meaningful choices and ensuring we are screening out the things that don't properly belong in that system."
However, she expressed concern on Tuesday about the stays in Edmonton.
"We never want a victim to see an accused walk free, not because of a trial but because of a technical procedural requirement," she told reporters, adding that the province is reviewing its resources, and is looking to hire four prosecutors in Wetaskiwin and up to eight in Edmonton.