Court delays in Alberta have been reduced thanks to streamlining measures introduced by the province, but defence lawyers are concerned the rights of the accused are getting flattened in the process.

Three months after the measures were introduced, the initiatives have made “significant progress” in cutting down judicial delays, Justice Minister Jonathan Denis said Monday.

Denis attributed some of the progress to increased use of direct indictments, which allow the Crown to proceed straight to trial without a preliminary inquiry — but the tactic is drawing sharp criticism from representatives of the province’s defence bar.

“It’s another deceptively simplistic solution to a complex issue in the justice system,” said D’Arcy DePoe, president of the Criminal Trial Lawyers’ Association.

Prosecutors have proceeded by direct indictment in three high-profile Edmonton-area cases recently:

Travis Vader, 41, faces first-degree murder charges in the July 2010 deaths of Lyle and Marie McCann. Vader was scheduled for a six-week preliminary hearing in September, though it’s not known when his trial will take place.

The parents of Baby M face second-degree murder charges after a two-year-old twin was allegedly starved and taken off life support in September 2012. A trial date has not been set.

Travis Baumgartner, 22, is slated to go to trial in September after he allegedly killed three security guards and critically wounded a fourth during a June 15, 2012, armed robbery at HUB Mall on the University of Alberta campus.

Increased use of direct indictments was one of 17 recommendations assistant deputy justice minister Greg Lepp made three months ago in a report titled Injecting a Sense of Urgency.

Lepp said Monday direct indictments have saved approximately 10 weeks of time in Edmonton’s provincial court.

His report was prompted by a failed Airdrie sex-assault case in which the charges against the accused were stayed due to lengthy court delays.

The changes focused on easing congestion by moving minor procedural matters out of courtrooms and ensuring cases in danger of being thrown out are identified and moved to the front of the queue.

Statistics provided by Alberta Justice showed the average time to go to trial in provincial court dropped slightly in June 2013 over the previous year in Edmonton and Calgary.

However, smaller centres experienced double-digit reductions, including a 44.7-per-cent decrease in trial lead times in Fort Saskatchewan and a 20.8-per-cent dip in Red Deer.

According to the progress report released Monday, there are signs prosecutors are increasingly embracing direct indictments: in 2010, prosecutors filed only 10 direct indictments throughout Alberta. In the first six months of 2013, the Crown filed 35.

Although pleased prosecutors are using direct indictments more often, Denis views it as an interim tactic: the justice minister has been lobbying his federal counterparts to eliminate preliminary inquiries in all but the most serious cases.

Preliminary inquiries have historically been used to determine if prosecutors have enough evidence to proceed to trial.

But a landmark Supreme Court ruling in 1991 that requires prosecutors to disclose all relevant evidence to the defence prior to trial has effectively rendered preliminary inquiries obsolete, said Lepp.

“We should do our best to eliminate preliminary inquiries because they are, essentially, an anachronism,” he said.

DePoe said preliminary hearings often save court time by allowing the defence and prosecution to narrow their focus prior to trials.

Depending on the evidence that emerges, an accused may decide to plead guilty after a preliminary inquiry, or the Crown may decide not to proceed to trial, said DePoe.

Eliminating preliminary inquiries may save time in provincial court, but DePoe predicted it will result in longer dockets in the province’s superior trial court.

“You can expect to see a sharp increase in trials listed in Court of Queen’s Bench,” he said.

Source: Edmonton Journal


Last updated on: 2013-08-22 | Link to this post