An Edmonton judge has delivered a harsh indictment of Red Deer’s criminal court system.
Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Richard Marceau heard a bail review in Red Deer on Monday for a man arrested on drug charges in January and held in custody pending a trial scheduled for June 2016.
Thirty months is a long time for an innocent person to languish in remand, and it’s actually a longer sentence than the man would likely serve if he were found guilty, defence counsel Andrew Phypers said outside of the hearing. Anticipating a lengthy time in remand was part of the reason for requesting the bail review, he said.
Marceau said after a break in the hearing that he would not allow the man’s release. However, he was able to offer a significantly earlier trial date after reviewing the court calendar with the trial co-ordinator, who found a two-day slot available in March because of a recent cancellation.
Marceau went on to comment on the backlog in Red Deer Courthouse, laying the blame squarely on Justice Canada for a lack of judges and on Alberta Justice for a shortage of courtrooms.
Both levels of government need to fulfil their duties to ensure that people accused of crimes are served fairly within the legal system, he said.
Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms states that all Canadians are innocent until proven guilty and have the right to a speedy trial.
“It is not the law of this land to serve your sentence and then find out if you’re guilty or not,” said Marceau.
He offered some advice to local defence counsel in general, stating that they and the Crown could work more closely with the trial co-ordinator to fill in cancellations. Lawyers could ask the trial co-ordinator to double book courtrooms in some instances, said Marceau.
“In Red Deer’s situation right now, in Queen’s Bench … if we double book, we probably can have judges available. If there’s a major trial and you’re ready to go, we might be able to call in the reserves,” he said.
Phypers said afterward that the earlier trial date for his client is a help, but that the man will still have served his sentence by the time he gets to court, regardless of whether he is found guilty.
Phypers said that his client, if convicted, could expect a sentence of around 30 months and would qualify for statutory release after serving one third of that sentence. That adds up to 10 months in custody and 20 months on parole.
The reality for Phypers’ client is that, innocent or guilty, he will have served 14 months by the time he goes to trial and will likely be given credit for 21 months because the courts recognize that remand time is much harsher than time in prison.
The extra credit, at 1.5 days for each day served, recognizes that remand centres are much more violent, there are no programs and there are three inmates housed in cells designed for two, with one person sleeping on the floor, said Phypers. Fights are frequent and medical attention is sometimes delayed because of the overcrowding, he said.
Members of the Central Alberta Bar Society have been working with the City of Red Deer and Alberta Justice on a proposal to build a larger courthouse here.
More than a year has passed since the City of Red Deer offered a land swap, which would see a new courthouse built on the former RCMP site with the city to take over the existing courthouse as office space.
Potential for expansion of Red Deer’s court facilities is under study with a report due in the next few days, said Chris Rickards, president of the bar society.
Courtroom and space is more of a problem than the lack of judges, which is a provincewide issue, said Rickards.
The appointment of Justice John Little adds a third judge to the Red Deer Court of Queen’s Bench, where there have been only two in the past, he said. However, even with a fourth or fifth justice appointment here, there is not enough court space, nor is there space for the additional offices and staff that would be required.
A provincial committee was struck earlier to review courtroom space in Red Deer and is expected to report its findings by the end of this month, he said.