Crown prosecutors across the province are considering strike action because of high file loads, mental-health concerns, and non-competitive wages.
Last week, the Alberta Crown Attorney’s Association, the group representing more than 75 per cent of Crown prosecutors in the province, held a meeting to discuss potential job action in the face of difficult work conditions.
Dallas Sopko, the president of the Alberta Crown Attorney’s Association, said Crown prosecutors don’t want to strike.
“Well the last thing we want as prosecutors is to go … on strike because we realize that that means more victims aren't going to get their day in court,” Sopko said.
“We want to work with the government, that’s why we haven’t done it yet.”
On March 22, the organization sent a letter to the provincial government outlining the situation in the justice system and where they want to see improvements in delivering justice in Alberta.
The biggest challenge currently facing prosecutors is their inability to collectively bargain with the province, Sopko said. Right now, prosecutors would need to bargain under the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE), a move which he said creates a huge conflict.
“The issue with that for us is that it's important that Crown prosecutors act independently and are seen by the public to be completely independent, otherwise it creates a huge conflict when we're doing our work,” Sopko said.
Bargaining under AUPE would see them join probation officers, correctional officers, and other investigators, who are witnesses or people they prosecute in court, Sopko said, which puts them in conflict. The conundrum leaves the prosecutors without a collective voice to help advocate to solve the problems they see in the justice system.
Other provinces, excluding Prince Edward Island and Saskatchewan, have formally recognized collective bargaining rights, Sopko said, so it is possible to allow Crown prosecutors to have an independent ability to advocate for themselves.
The inability for prosecutors to have collective bargaining has resulted in challenging working conditions, as they can’t raise issues with the government in a collective way.
“The issue we have is that the government can unilaterally change any term of our employment that they wish, including compensation, the number of employees, when [we] will be paid, and mental-health supports,” Sopko said.
One of the biggest challenges facing Crown prosecutors across the province is “crushing file loads” due to a shortage of staff.
In St. Paul there are times where prosecutors are responsible for 400 files at one time, Sopko said, adding the workload isn’t supposed to be that high.
But when vacancies exist and can’t be filled, files start piling up on the prosecutors who are on staff. Prosecutors must take these files and get them to trial within a time frame laid out by a Supreme Court decision, which dictates a provincial court file must be heard 18 months after charges are laid, or 30 months for cases that require a preliminary inquiry. If cases aren’t heard, they will be stayed by the court, which means there will be no verdict or punishment in the case.
And serious cases are at risk of running over this Jordan ruling, Sopko said, adding 3,000 files are at risk of hitting the allotted time limit to see justice, and 2,000 of them are serious or violent offences.
“That kind of speaks to how many cases there are and how overwhelmed we are,” Sopko said.
While trying to get cases to trial in a timely manner, prosecutors are also under the triage protocol, laid out by the government five years ago, which causes some prosecutors to decide not to bring cases forward at the beginning of the process because they must prioritize other cases.
Prosecutors are dealing with a lot of serious cases in Alberta overall, with more than 220 active homicide files.
With big case loads and serious cases coming forward, Sopko said the mental health of prosecutors is wearing thin. In a survey the association ran in the fall some 95 per cent of respondents said they were feeling burned out in the workplace.
“What we're seeing, which is really unfortunate, is that we're dedicating the time and the resources to train these young prosecutors who are full of promise and ... over and over again, after a year or two, they are burning out and they are no longer capable of living a healthy life and being productive in the workplace and they are leaving,” Sopko said.
In some rural communities, such as in Lac La Biche, it is not unusual for prosecutors to set five or six trials for one day, compared to other provinces where lawyers are more likely to just deal with one file per day.
A fall survey reported that 86 per cent of prosecutors who responded said they sometimes go to court under-prepared, and 84 per cent said they think the result of cases would be different if they had more time to prepare.
Other provinces are attracting candidates because of compensation, too, says the association president.
The Alberta Crown’s offices will train lawyers for years but lose them to other provinces, or they will graduate from Alberta’s two law schools and then immediately move to jurisdictions where the compensation is higher, Sopko said.
In British Columbia and Ontario, Sopko said, through a prosecutor's career, they will make “substantially more each year.” Alberta also doesn’t have parental leave benefits other jurisdictions have.
Prosecutors in Alberta start out making around $80,000 per year and then will have a salary increase after four years. Once they get to 15 years, they top out in the $160,000 range with no further raises.
But Sopko said that in Ontario, prosecutors who have been with the province for a long time make about $250,000 a year.
In Alberta, if prosecutors apply for a promotion, they can reach $190,000, but there are very few positions available. In British Columbia, prosecutors will top out at a little over $240,000.
“When you get into the numbers, it becomes very complex, but generally speaking, [in comparison to] B.C. and Ontario at the beginning of your career, we're about 10 to 20 per cent behind, and later in your career, we are about 30 per cent behind,” Sopko said.
With the compensation for experienced prosecutors so drastically different compared with two of the largest provinces in the country, Sopko said Alberta's experienced prosecutors often leave for those greener pastures.
Other provinces, such as Saskatchewan, don’t have collective bargaining rights, and don’t get paid more than Alberta prosecutors.
Right now there are 30 or more vacancies in Alberta, and offices are struggling to fill those vacancies. Sopko said the chief Crown in Fort McMurray accepted a position in Ontario, and the position that person left behind has remained vacant for several months.
"They've run multiple competitions to fill it and they can't find a certified candidate to go up there and that's the leader of the office,” Sopko said.
“Fort McMurray is a pretty busy spot. It's a big city and they’re without a regional supervisor there because there's no one that's going to go up there and do the job.”
Prosecutors want a formal process to air their grievances with the province, Sopko said, without being completely ignored.
“Even if [we're] heard, we have no guarantee or ... mechanism to ensure that there's a fair and reasonable response to our concerns,” Sopko said.
“We're not asking the government at this point to back up a Brinks truck and dump a bunch of money on us. We don't need [that] at this point. We just want to be able to collectively bargain so that we have a fair relationship with our employer, like 95 per cent of the rest of the prosecutors in Canada already.”