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Federal criminal justice bill aims to reduce court backlogs

St. Albert MP Michael Cooper said that a massive criminal justice reform bill introduced by the federal government will not reduce court backlogs as efficiently as appointing more judges.
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Screen grab of St. Albert MP Michael Cooper's press conference held in Calgary on Tuesday morning to launch a petition asking the federal justice department to fill judicial vacancies across the country.

St. Albert MP Michael Cooper said that a massive criminal justice reform bill introduced by the federal government will not reduce court backlogs as efficiently as appointing more judges.

The federal government introduced a large bill, known as Bill C-75, on Thursday and the massive document amends many sections of the Criminal Code in the hopes of speeding up the court process both federally and provincially.

Cooper said that as a member of the federal justice committee he will study many of the changes but said the government is failing to make the most simple changes to speed up the court process, which is to appoint more judges.

Cooper said that right now there are 12 judicial vacancies in the superior courts in Alberta.

On Tuesday morning Cooper along with Conservative MP Michelle Rempel launched a petition at to help urge the federal government to fill current judicial vacancies.

Cooper will also be asking the justice committee to study the impact the judicial vacancies have had on the justice system.

One of the many changes in the bill will reclassify certain offences to hybrid offences, which means they can be tried as either summary or indictment. Cooper said that the move will “water down” those offences that should be taken seriously.

The Conservative MP and deputy justice critic said that the bill is also a reflection of a failure of the Liberal government to move justice legislation that is current before the house forward. Cooper said the new bill includes four pieces of justice legislation that have already been introduced.

“How can you trust this government to make the justice system more efficient when they can't even manage their own legislative process?” Cooper said.

One of the four smaller bills that were reintroduced in the big bill is legislation that will amend the Criminal Code to remove unconstitutional laws, known as zombie laws.

Zombie law legislation was first introduced in March 2017 and since first reading the bill made no movement.

A zombie law in the Criminal Code is what delayed and derailed the two second-degree murder verdicts of Travis Vader in the death of two St. Albert seniors, Lyle and Marie McCann. Vader was later found guilty of manslaughter.

When Queen’s Bench Justice Denny Thomas delivered his decision he cited a section of the Criminal Code, which had been deemed unconstitutional by the court system 26 years earlier.

Court backlogs

The federal bill is expected to help reduce court backlogs by reserving preliminary hearings for the most serious crimes.

Court backlogs became a serious problem after the Supreme Court ruled that there can only be 18 months between charges and a trial in provincial court without a preliminary inquiry or 30 months for more serious cases.

Since the decision some serious cases have been thrown out of court for going over the time limit and the federal government has been under pressure to introduce changes that will speed up the court process.

Two St. Albert defence lawyers and former duty counsellors at the St. Albert Provincial Court, Brad Leebody and Dave Lloyd said that the changes around preliminary inquiries will likely streamline and speed up the court process.

“If their objective is to de-clog the courts, this is going to do it. This is absolutely going to do it,” Leebody said.

A preliminary inquiry is a step in the justice process before a trial, which allows for evidence to be presented and a judge will decide if there is enough evidence to proceed with a trial.

Leebody said that there has been discussion within the legal community for many years around reducing the amount of preliminary inquiries being held.

The duo said that the move will speed up the justice process and reduce the amount of time cases will be before the courts, but that they would like to see the process replaced with something similar to a civil case discovery.

A discovery is similar to a preliminary inquiry, except the discovery is not held before a court. It is an opportunity for each party in a civil case to examine oral evidence before a trial.

Leebody said that a preliminary inquiry is a tool for defence lawyers and he would like to see the Liberals go further by removing the direct indictment power of Crown prosecutors to balance the power between defence and Crown.

Jennifer Henderson, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

About the Author: Jennifer Henderson, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

Jennifer Henderson is the Local Journalism Initiative reporter for Great West Media based in St. Albert, Alta.
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