POLITICS

Newfoundland and Labrador backtracks on Justice Department cutbacks

04/11/2013 01:18 EDT | Updated 06/11/2013 05:12 EDT
ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - Newfoundland and Labrador backtracked Thursday on Justice Department cuts after two weeks of vocal warnings from legal experts about courtroom security and potential delays.

Justice Minister Darin King said he was taking the advice of a committee, which included the director of public prosecutions and the province's high sheriff, that was formed amid bruising criticism of planned cuts.

Instead of cutting courtroom security sheriffs to 20 from 40 staff, King now says up to 29 positions will be filled. A casual call-in list for extra sheriffs when needed will also be created.

Four Crown attorney positions have been restored and one added, and three legal aid vacancies will be filled and funding has been reinstated for two other lawyers.

King announced after last month's deficit-fighting, cost-cutting provincial budget that 147 justice jobs would be lost through layoffs and another 52 vacancies would not be filled.

He maintained Thursday that he stands behind those initial decisions made after a year-long departmental review. But he said the government moved to ease pressure on Crown prosecutors already juggling heavy workloads as they prepare for major cases, including murder and fraud proceedings. There was also a need to ensure public confidence in the justice system, King said.

He was surprised by the sustained public backlash against the Progressive Conservative government, he added.

"You know, in hindsight, I guess we'll take the collective blame — whether I didn't communicate as effectively as I should have, or whether some in the audience here reported things a little differently than maybe they could have," he told a news conference in St. John's.

King blamed misinformation for stirring some of that outcry but said the government is open to revisiting decisions when they're so strongly questioned.

Justice funding has increased in the province since it went through the Lamer Inquiry. Former Supreme Court Judge Antonio Lamer's report in 2006 outlined how the legal system failed three men convicted of murder who were later exonerated or found not guilty on appeal.

The government will also review its legal aid and sheriff services for efficiencies, King said.

Newfoundland and Labrador is forecasting a deficit of $563.8 million this fiscal year. Its latest budget cut about 1,200 public sector jobs.

NDP legislature member Gerry Rogers questioned how the government wound up having to do such damage control when it had months to review its programs and services.

"This was an ill-conceived plan, or lack of plan, in the budget cuts," she told reporters.

"And then to come to this crisis position and to think now it's all fixed in two days. There's something wrong," she said of the government's response to a review committee that just met Wednesday.

King said the government listened to public concerns, went back to justice experts and acted quickly to make changes that will ultimately improve the legal system.