A chronic shortage of court resources in Red Deer has come under fire after a stay of proceedings was granted for a Sylvan Lake accountant accused of embezzling his former employer.
“It’s an emergency situation, because you can’t just have criminal charges, especially the serious charges, just getting thrown out because of delays,” Calgary-based defence counsel Paul Gracia said after the proceedings against his client were stayed because it took so long to schedule his trial.
Sean Keith Brouillette, 45, was charged on Sept. 23, 2013 with theft and fraud. Sylvan Lake RCMP alleged that he stole roughly $71,000 from his former employer, Red Flame Industries. Brouillette was committed to stand trial on Oct. 29, 2014 and arraigned in the Court of Queen’s bench on Dec. 1 of the same year. His trial was set for April 11-15 of this year.
The trial opened on Monday before Edmonton-based Justice Donna Read, with Gracia seeking a judicial stay of proceedings because of the delay.
Read announced on Tuesday that she would grant the stay because the delay had breached Brouillette’s right to a fair trial, which is guaranteed under Section 11B of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Read laid the blame directly onto the chronic shortage of resources in Red Deer.
“Longstanding as these problems are, the limited resources available in Red Deer cannot affect the accused’s right to a trial within a reasonable period of time,” said Read.
“This finding begs the question of whether an earlier trial date for this five-day trial could have been found in Red Deer’s overcrowded docket. The delay in bringing this matter to trial has been long — too long.”
Outside the courtroom, Gracia said he anticipates that Read’s ruling will encourage other defence counsel to make similar applications. While his client waited 16 months from arraignment to trial, lengthier trials in Red Deer are now being scheduled 18 months out. In arraignments on April 4, a number of Queen’s Bench trials were set for the fall of 2017.
“Scheduling trial dates 18 months out … is too long and it’s unacceptable,” said Gracia.
“The excuse of not having enough judges or courtrooms is not a good excuse. It’s an excuse that the Supreme Court of Canada has specifically considered and specifically rejected.”
He said an urgent message needs to pass through the Crown prosecutor’s office to the Minister of Justice and on to Premier Rachel Notley.
“They should expand this courthouse, or find some temporary space to hold their trials,” said Gracia.
Red Deer lawyer Chris Rickards, president of the Central Alberta Bar Association, said on Tuesday that his group has spent years lobbying the province for improved court facilities. Mayor Tara Veer and City Council have joined the effort, with limited results so far.
Key to their push is a land-swap proposal, in which the City would assume control of courthouse property in exchange for the former RCMP building, located on 49th Street, across from the downtown library. A new courthouse could then be built on that site. The existing courthouse does not have enough foundation to support an expansion.
Expanding into temporary facilities would not be desirable, said Rickards. There has been significant confusion since traffic court was moved to the Baymont Hotel, a few blocks south of the courthouse. That confusion would only increase if more facilities were opened at other locations, said Rickards.
Veer said on Tuesday that their efforts are still holding “at the one-yard line.”
A report commissioned under former Premier Jim Prentice has not been released, so the local group has no idea what sort of recommendations it contains or how high Red Deer sits in terms of priorities for courthouse expansion, said Veer.
The city and province were “very close” to signing off on a land swap when the election was called and there was a change in government, she said. Since then, Veer has had some meetings with the new Justice Minister, Kathleen Granley, and has found that she is familiar with the problems facing Red Deer.
The mayor has been invited to attend the province’s budget announcement on Thursday, and is hopeful that it will include some movement on courthouse expansion in Red Deer.
At the very least, she hopes that the province will finally commit to the land swap, which would lay the foundation for courthouse expansion.
A regional hub, Red Deer’s courthouse serves 350,000 people in Central Alberta, said Veer.