Get justice on fast track

As the crisis in the delivery of justice in Alberta deepens, we should all hope that the provincial government has the good sense to move quickly. And we should hope that the premier and her cabinet have the good manners not to behave as if they are affronted by attempts to politicize an important issue. (How else would out-manned opposition MLAs engage the government, and the public, in conversation about the issue?)

As the crisis in the delivery of justice in Alberta deepens, we should all hope that the provincial government has the good sense to move quickly.

And we should hope that the premier and her cabinet have the good manners not to behave as if they are affronted by attempts to politicize an important issue. (How else would out-manned opposition MLAs engage the government, and the public, in conversation about the issue?)

One of the best ways to avoid criticism is to take the higher moral ground. But by recoiling in outrage over opposition attempts to discuss during question period the problems in the justice system, Premier Alison Redford is simply guilty of so much political gamesmanship herself.

She should know better, and show more leadership.

This is a serious problem. And the outrage should be a shared one, any time a crime is committed and society fails to deal with it fairly and promptly.

The consequences of a crippled system are dire. Justice must be timely and fair. To be otherwise is to punish both the accused and the victims, and diminish the rule of law. Every time the delivery of justice is delayed, trust in the system is attacked at the foundation.

Yet Redford wants to behave as if she is insulted by opposition concerns, and their means of raising those concerns, rather than frankly admitting that there are growing problems in the justice system that must be addressed quickly.

This week, Redford rebuffed a Wildrose demand for an independent investigation into an extreme case of justice delayed — and ultimately denied.

Redford’s government appointed a senior Justice Department official to investigate why the case against a man accused of sexually assaulting an Airdrie woman while she was a girl (from the age of nine to 17) was eventually dropped by the Crown.

The case languished in the courts for more than three years and was ultimately stayed because the accused hadn’t received a timely trial. Justice officials say at least seven other cases were similarly dropped last year in Alberta.

Countless other cases are in limbo or moving at a snail’s pace around the province.

Part of the problem is systemic: defence lawyers routinely manoeuvre for delays as they look for ways to ultimately defend, or free, their clients. Crown prosecutors carry heavy, and growing, caseloads. Judges must juggle dozens of cases at a time.

Part of the problem is infrastructure: there are too few courtrooms in this province.

Red Deer is a perfect example. The Red Deer Courthouse is 30 years old and jammed to the rafters, dealing with a local population that has doubled in the last three decades (never mind that provincial courthouses in Lacombe, Sylvan Lake and Innisfail have been closed in recent years, sending more cases to Red Deer).

In Red Deer this week, Justice Earl Wilson told Court of Queen’s Bench that a Central Alberta man’s right to a speedy trial is in doubt because of the crushing lack of courtroom space. Simple half-day hearings can take six months to schedule. Longer proceedings can’t be booked for at least nine months.

Central Alberta officials have long lobbied the province for more courtroom space. The appetite for building a new courthouse seems slight at the moment, but at very least the province should lease downtown office space now and turn it into additional courtrooms.

Calling for a public, independent investigation into instances of justice delayed won’t solve the problem.

Certainly the Wildrose Party’s demand for an explanation is fair and timely. But more to the point, Albertans need action.

Posturing by Redford in the face of attacks from Wildrose won’t solve the problem either. It simply suggests she has no appetite for the job at hand.

She needs to admit that the justice system is inadequate, in a variety of ways, and get on with the business of fixing it.

John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.

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