Prisoner may walk due to shortage of judges

The province’s failure to assign a justice to hear a Red Deer drug trafficking trial on Tuesday could result in the charges being dismissed.

The province’s failure to assign a justice to hear a Red Deer drug trafficking trial on Tuesday could result in the charges being dismissed.

Mohamud Ibrahim, 21, was set to begin a two-day judge alone trial in Red Deer Court of Queen’s Bench but the trial was postponed until March 8, 2012.

Ibrahim’s lawyer, Michael Scrase, told Justice Kirk Sisson that he will most likely make an application to have the two charges dismissed because his client’s right to a speedy trial under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms has been violated. It will be about 28 months from the time he was charged until the trial is scheduled to start.

Scrase is expected to make that application on the first day of the trial next March. The accused is out on strict bail conditions.

Ibrahim was charged on Dec. 19, 2009, with possession of cocaine for the purpose of trafficking and giving Red Deer city RCMP a false name.

Sisson wasn’t scheduled to hear the case but since he was the only justice in Red Deer on Tuesday, he heard the adjournment application.

Sisson was to hear a four-day civil trial that he said took precedence because it had been lingering for four years.

Federal Crown prosecutor Dave Inglis told court there was no justice available either for the second day of the trial.

Sisson said the case “is getting long in the tooth.”

Inglis said both he and Scrase were ready to proceed.

The applicant in the civil case was represented by a lawyer but the defendant was not. It’s now suspected the case won’t conclude in four days.

That case points out an ongoing problem for the province when scheduling judges.

Neil Wittmann, Chief Justice of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench, said last September at a conference that there are now many more people using the court services.

“This is partly because of changes in family structures and partly because of the regulation of more aspects of daily life.

“Inevitably, more and different user types means more people cannot afford a lawyer. Our court records show the number of applicants in 2006 in the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench Motions Court who appeared without lawyers was about 2,900.

“In 2009, that number had shot up to over 5,600. And the number of unrepresented respondents has increased by 25 per cent in the same period.

“From my perspective, this change means we are faced in the courtroom with persons who have very limited understanding of the legal process and principles. This puts pressure on the judge, on the lawyer, if the other party has one, and on court staff.

“Making things worse are cuts to Legal Aid funding. The cuts are the result of revenue losses experienced by the Alberta Law Foundation, one of Legal Aid’s major funders, due to the economic downturn.”

He said total funding in 2009-2010 was down about 19 per cent over original expectations, and another $5 million cut was expected for 2010-2011.

He said to their credit, Legal Aid is working hard to offset lower funding with innovative programs.

“But take it from me, if we had a system whereby at least one side, if not both, could be represented by counsel, numerous adjournments, prolongation of applications, hearings and trials, hand-holding by court staff would be prevented or at least alleviated.”

jwilson@bprda.wpengine.com