03/01/2017 14:46 EST | Updated 03/02/2018 00:12 EST

Alberta Crowns warn more charges could be stayed unless more prosecutors hired

EDMONTON — Alberta Crown prosecutors are warning that more criminal charges will be stayed unless the provincial government hires 50 more lawyers to deal with a growing number of cases.

James Pickard, president of the Alberta Crown Attorneys’ Association, says the province is failing to adequately fund the Crown prosecution service.

"Unless the government of Alberta immediately begins hiring additional prosecutors to tackle the current backlog and address the pressures, more criminal prosecutions will have to be abandoned,” Pickard Wednesday.

His comments came a day after charges were stayed in 15 criminal cases in Edmonton due to the shortage of prosecutors.

Pickard said the stayed charges included impaired driving, assault, fraud, theft and weapons offences.

About 200 significant criminal charges have been stayed across Alberta since January due to the shortage of Crowns, the association said.

Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley said the government is working to recruit 14 more Crown prosecutors and suggested it may hire more after the provincial budget is handed down on March 16.

Ganley said in the meantime the government is giving prosecutors the discretion to stay less serious, non-violent charges.

The minister said the government is concerned about the backlog but needs to manage the situation carefully.

The NDP government increased funding to the legal aid system last year by $2.5 million.

Ganley said the increase was long overdue and the situation was exacerbated by Alberta's growing jobless rate at the time. 

"Legal aid is an important part of the legal system — we don't think it is more important than the Crowns," Ganley said.

"We have been assessing court resources ... to ensure how we can best move forward."

Chief Crown prosecutor Shelley Bykewich has said there is a 14-per-cent vacancy rate in the prosecutors' office.

She said the shortage is complicated by a Supreme Court of Canada ruling last year that set out new deadlines for completing trials. Those deadlines are up to 30 months in superior courts and 18 months for cases at the provincial level.

Pickard said Alberta's population has grown substantially in recent years and the number of Crown prosecutor positions has not kept pace.

He said a government hiring freeze has left 35 full-time equivalent positions vacant at a time when at least 50 new Crowns are urgently needed.