A senior official in the Alberta government is downplaying reports that taxpayers are carrying the burden for mistakes at the new Edmonton Remand Centre.
Red Deer lawyer Paul Morigeau is among those who have had clients transferred to Red Deer on court dates because they can’t speak to them privately at the ERC. There is a closed-circuit TV system, but the new setup — including a sign on the wall stating that calls will be monitored — leaves clients with concerns that their conversations will be overheard.
In his first court appearance for one Legal Aid client, Morigeau told the judge that he had not yet been able to take direction from his client because they had not been able to speak privately.
The judge accepted Morigeau’s request to have the accused man transferred to Red Deer for a live court appearance rather than making his next court date by closed-circuit TV from the ERC.
Calgary lawyer Kim Ross said in Red Deer provincial court earlier this month that he has also had trouble reaching clients at the ERC. Ross requested that one of his clients, who is facing a murder charge, be moved to a closer remand centre so they could discuss the charges before him.
The sorts of problems that have emerged at ERC don’t exist at other remand centres, including Red Deer, Medicine Hat and Lethbridge, said Morigeau.
“The setup is such that counsel, unless they actually go visit there – which is very difficult for us in Red Deer, can’t get a hold of our clients and our clients can’t seem to get a hold of us. There’s a line that you phone, and it puts you in an endless loop of getting referred back and forth to different people and never ever getting an appointment.”
Video conferences with clients are available only on the day of court, said Morigeau.
“I have concerns, because they do say that all your calls and all your discussions are monitored. So really, you can’t discuss sensitive issues.
“It’s just impossible. I’ve tried it dozens of times. Basically, you’re just left in the loop and you can never get through.”
Having to get clients shipped down to Red Deer to appear live in court seems to the be the only option, and that puts an extra burden on taxpayers, said Morigeau.
Liberal leader Raj Sherman said that, along with the cost, the difficulties lawyers and clients are having at the new remand centre also cause a delay in justice, which adds onto the costs and puts the process in peril.
Even those lawyers who are based in Edmonton are having trouble and have had to ask that their clients be transferred to the courthouse rather than appear on closed-circuit TV. Using CCTV for pre-trial court appearances has become standard procedure in recent years, largely because it is safer for inmates and staff, said Sherman.
While ERC may function well as a correctional centre, the setup does not work for inmates in remand, who are still waiting their day in court and are therefore considered innocent because they haven’t been proven guilty, he said.
“This is in keeping with poor planning from the government. They didn’t talk to the guards. They didn’t talk to the lawyers. Who did they talk to? They go ahead and build a building without consulting the very experts who are going to operate and reside in it,” said Sherman.
Dan Laville, senior communications officer in the Justice and Solicitor General’s ministry, said in a series of emails with The Advocate that there are no such problems.
“From my perspective it’s important to be clear that inmates still have access to their lawyers and they can still meet the way they have been previously,” said Laville.
“If a lawyer requests to have (a) client returned, we make the necessary arrangements given the court date and time for them to prepare for court. We do not record calls between lawyers and their clients. All other personal calls are recorded,” he said.
Justice Minister Jonathan Denis and Shayne Saskiw, justice critic for the Wildrose Party, were not available for comment.