Canada's justice minister says she's poised to appoint a number of new judges to the bench following criticism from Alberta, where a first-degree murder charge was stayed because of an unreasonable delay in getting an accused to trial.
Jody Wilson-Raybould made the commitment Friday at the conclusion of a two-day meeting in Halifax with her provincial and territorial counterparts.
Raybould said she plans to announce more appointments in the "near future," saying the federal government is reviewing the appointment process and the rate of vacancies in every jurisdiction.
Speaking after the meeting, Alberta Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley said the province has the country's lowest number of superior court justices on a per capita basis. The problem has been in the making for decades, she said, but the minister stressed that both levels of government understand the urgency of the situation.
"I'm confident that moves will be made expeditiously and they understand the seriousness of the concern on this issue," Ganley told a news conference. "It's really troubling to see the family of a victim who is not able to get justice ... This is not an issue that arose overnight. This has been building up for years, for decades."
A jury trial was to begin next week in Edmonton for a 29-year-old man accused of fatally stabbing a fellow inmate in August 2011, but a judge with the provincial Court of Queen's Bench stayed the murder charge last Friday, citing a 62-month delay.
Earlier this year, a Supreme Court of Canada ruling – dubbed the Jordan decision – concluded that such delays must not exceed 30 months in superior courts. The decision also said cases at the provincial level should take not longer than 18 months.
Meanwhile, the Opposition federal Conservatives have taken aim at Raybould, accusing her of dithering on an important file. Critic Michael Cooper, an Alberta MP, has said the dozens of vacancies across the country could lead to thousands of cases being thrown out.
Raybould said the federal government's comprehensive review of the criminal justice system will include a look at the way judges are appointed.
She said recent court delays have been caused by more than a shortage of judges, but she did not elaborate.
"We have been engaged in looking at the vacancy rates in every jurisdiction and have taken a very concerted approach to our appointments," she said.
In a mild-mannered statement released after the meeting, the justice ministers specifically cited their desire to end "delays in the completion of criminal cases."
The statement also confirmed that the ministers spoke about another hot topic: the pending legalization of marijuana for non-medical use.
Raybould said she and her colleagues also discussed issues around public safety, cybercrime, radicalization, violence against indigenous women and girls, Ottawa's national security consultation, policing services in indigenous communities, and the response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on residential schools.