Criminal cases dropped as Nova Scotia Crown attorneys walk off job

HALIFAX — Nova Scotia’s Crown attorneys went on strike Wednesday, leading to dropped cases and a legal effort by the Liberal government to end the walkout, citing public safety concerns.

The day started with the unusual scene of dozens of the province’s 100 prosecutors marching in the rain around the legislature, ringing bells and chanting.

Meanwhile, in Halifax provincial court — one of the province’s busiest — cases started to be dismissed due to a lack of prosecutors available to deal with the charges.

Perry Borden, president of the Nova Scotia Crown Attorneys’ Association, told reporters that cases of domestic violence, impaired driving, assault, threats and fraud were dismissed by judges.

He placed the responsibility on the Liberal government’s insistence on proceeding with legislation that removes the Crown attorneys negotiated right to binding arbitration.

“We are not to blame for what’s happening in courts …. When we didn’t accept their terms they cut (negotiations) off at the knees,” he said.

However Premier Stephen McNeil said his government considers the strike unlawful. His office issued a release indicating it had filed notice in Nova Scotia Supreme Court Wednesday seeking an injunction to force the lawyers back to work.

“This is an illegal strike and they can’t just walk off the job,” the release said. ”This is about protecting the public safety of Nova Scotians and ensuring our court system continues to function.”

Borden responded the prosecutors will keep their fight going. “We are in court every day. If there’s a way to contest it (the injunction), we will contest it,” he said. “This is not going to make us stop.”

McNeil has said the legislation is necessary because the province can’t afford the salary increases sought by prosecutors.

The Crown attorneys are seeking a 17 per cent raise over four years, which is higher than an established wage pattern set for the province’s public sector. The province is offering a seven per cent increase over four years.

“We don’t treat public servants differently. We don’t go to one group and say we’ll give you 17 per cent and then go to another group and say ‘You’re not worth that,’” the premier said.

Rick Woodburn, the union’s lead negotiator, said the government is breaking a contract, and their cause is both just and legal. The prosecutor said the attorneys agreed in 2016 to give up the right to strike in exchange for binding arbitration, a deal that was supposed to last 30 years.

However, the province tabled a bill last week to remove the binding arbitration clause, which Woodburn said effectively gutted the attorneys’ collective agreement.

“Both through words and actions, they breached that agreement,” said Woodburn, who is also president of the Canadian Association of Crown Counsel.

He said about 15 of the province’s 100 prosecutors remained on the job Wednesday to handle murder cases, sexual assaults and other serious crimes. He predicted “chaos” in the courts as a result of a shortage of prosecutors for more routine cases.

At Halifax provincial court, a series of cases were ”dismissed for want of prosecution,” according to court records.

But the day’s highest-profile case — the appearance of 26-year-old Ryan Richard Lamontagne on charges of murdering his mother — proceeded as a replacement Crown hired on a per diem basis was present. Lamontagne’s case was put over for a psychiatric assessment at the East Coast Forensic Hospital.

Borden said it will take time for the full impact of the walkout to become apparent.

“Today would have been trial dates being set, sentences occurring, disclosure (of evidence) applications,” he said. “None of that has happened, because the Crown is just adjourning things.”

The public prosecutors’ collective agreement expired March 31, and the two sides met twice for negotiations in June before two conciliation meetings were held this month.

The union says the wage increase sought is in line with what counterparts across Canada have received. Nova Scotia Crown attorneys are currently the highest paid in Atlantic Canada but nationally the increase would put them at around the median.

According to figures released by the province, they currently earn up to $149,000 annually, a figure that would increase to about $160,000 under the government’s offer.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 23, 2019.

Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press

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