Prosecutor quitting after budget cuts leaves Crown’s office with low numbers

Rosie Mullaley
Published on March 31, 2013
Confederation Building
— Telegram file photo

Hours after her office was gutted by the provincial budget, at least one Crown prosecutor has decided it’s case closed — for good.

“I’m leaving,” said the woman, who didn’t want to be identified.

“I would love to stay. I love this work, but I’m not prepared to do it half-assed, and with the (low numbers of) prosecutors we’re left with, that’s exactly what would happen.”

On Tuesday, close to 1,200 jobs in government were slashed. Among them were at least four Crown attorney positions.

While it may not seem like a big number, it is when you consider that in March 2012, the office was at 25 prosecutors. One year later, it’s down to 16.

“I don’t think the public has any idea what this is going to do,” said the woman, who has been with the Justice Department for more than two decades.

“It’s a recipe for disaster.”

With each Crown attorney having between 100 and 150 cases, she said the heavy workload will impact prosecutors’ ability to handle cases.

“It’s crisis management,” she said.

“We’ve already lost one impaired driving case. It got dismissed because nobody was there to prosecute it.”

While exact numbers won’t be known until next week, in terms of job losses, the Justice Department was undeniably the hardest hit by the budget cuts — losing nearly three times as many people as any other department.

The sheriff’s office in St. John’s lost half of its staff (down to 21 sheriff’s officers from 42).

The Newfoundland and Labrador Legal Aid Commission was also on the chopping block, with its budget slashed significantly. Director John Duggan said the board will meet next week to figure out where the cuts will come.

Government has confirmed the St. John’s Family Violence Intervention Court — a pilot project that has operated since March 2009 — will be eliminated.

Layoffs were also made in other departments, including the probation office, victim services, youth corrections and court administration.

In a time when the public is crying out for the prosecution of criminals, the news of the cuts in the Crown’s office was devastating.

One prosecutor had already quit before the budget was tabled, stating she felt overworked and overwhelmed by the heavy workload.

The woman who plans to announce her departure next week said each Crown prosecutor has several complicated cases and is expected to work several hours outside their normal working hours.

“Prosecutors work many, many hours and are not compensated in any way, shape or form,” she said.

She said she’s worked almost every weekend this year, “and that’s all on my own time. I don’t get any compensation for it. But we do it because the work matters to us.”

She believes public safety will be compromised by Crown cuts. She said there will soon come a point when many crimes, like shoplifting and traffic violations, will not be able to be prosecuted due to the shortage of staff.

“We’re going to have to prioritize,” she said. “We’re going to have to tell people you’re going to have to (deal with things) yourself.

“Small businesses, you’ve had your store broken into? Sorry, we’re only doing violence offences.”

She added that cases that are dealt with in court will take much longer to go through the system. Those accused of crimes can expect to wait months longer for a trial, she said — that just a few years after a task force was formed to focus on improving efficiencies in court.

She fears with so few prosecutors, it will lead to wrongful acquittals.

“They spent millions on the Lamer Inquiry,” she said, referring to the inquiry that probed wrongful convictions in the province in the 1990s. “So, in five years time, are we going to have another inquiry?

“Things are worse now than what they were in the 1990s.”

When the issue of Crown cuts was brought up to Attorney General Tom Marshall by reporters outside the House of Assembly Thursday, he said he’s confident the office will continue to provide an effective service to the public.

“We’re sure that the public prosecutions system will carry on. … Most lawyers carry a lot of cases,” said Marshall, who pointed out he practised law for 30 years.

“The reduction in bodies … obviously, it will cause some challenges, but I’ve got confidence they can handle the case load.”

Justice Minister Darin King agreed.

“I don’t see a problem. I have every confidence in the decisions we’ve made,” he said.

“We’ve looked at the case loads of all employees in the Department of Justice, we explored opportunities where we, in discussion with our supervisors, felt we could make some changes and still continue to provide a high level of service.

“If we didn’t feel we could do that, we would not have brought forward the changes we brought forward.”

He said he understand the frustration of people who were affected by the layoffs, but added government took the opportunity to find alternate ways to deliver services.

Despite the losses, King said government’s mandate of ensuring public safety is still the focus.

“Safe communities and protecting people in areas where people violate the law, we will prosecute to the fullest extent possible,” King  said.

As part of that, he said, government has given a financial boost to policing in the province.

Earlier this month, government announced a $1-million investment to police forces. The money will go towards creating a new task force on Child Exploitation and Drugs, a joint effort between the RCMP and RNC, to help fight child exploitation, illegal drugs and organized crime.

However, the prosecutor who plans to quit said investing in policing doesn’t go far enough if criminals aren’t prosecuted.

“The way the criminal justice system works, it makes no sense to hire hundreds of police officers and not have the Crown prosecutors to go to court (to prosecute them),” she said.

“The criminal justice system is a chain and every link in the chain matters.

“You need to have police officers, but you also need to have prosecutors, sheriff’s officers, you need to have probation officers to supervise them when they’re in the community. And you need to have (legal aid) defence lawyers.

“It’s very dangerous. It’s a much more dangerous time in Newfoundland post-budget than pre-budget.”

She also believes cutting the Family Violence Intervention Court is a huge mistake.

“That going away, that is just such a devastating blow,” she said. “There are women killed or seriously hurt by violent partners in this province.

“We were making really good progress with that court. We were doing really important work there.”

However, King told reporters that it was cut due to the low numbers of people availing of the full program.

Last year, the budget for the Family Violence Intervention Court was close to $500,000. In all, he said, 10 people availed of the full program.

“There comes a point in time, from government’s perspective when you have to decide whether that’s an effective way to deliver services and supports to those who are impacted by family violence, and we don’t believe it is.

“We don’t believe that for the number of participants, that’s a wise use of the money,” he said. “So, we’ve decided we won’t continue with the pilot.”

He said government will continue to support those who have been affected by family violence and said services are available through police and victim services.

Low numbers at the youth correctional facility in Whitbourne was also the reason for the cut there. King said 10 years ago, an average of 45 to 50 youth were remanded at that centre. Currently, there are nine.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out you don’t need the same staff compliment for nine youth than you do to serve 45 to 50,” King said.

As for the cuts in the sheriff’s office, King said safety will still be a priority in court.

“We’ve been reassured that with some of the new technologies implemented at the courthouse, along with the way we’re able to arrange staffing on a go-forward basis that safety will not be an issue and if we have to reassign or use a different model of staffing, then we’ll certainly do that,” King said.

King and Marshall said they will closely monitor things and resource requirements and will respond if need be.

Marshall said, in the Crown’s office, if situations arise where, for example, there are additional complex cases and extra resources are needed, he is open to suggestions.

“My door is always open,” he said.

King is encouraging people to wait and see how things play out.

“It’s very early in the process. Let’s let the system settle out a bit. Let’s give it a bit of time. The budget was delivered Tuesday. This is Thursday. It hasn’t been 48 hours and the full impact is not known yet and won’t be known for quite some time …,” he said.

“It’s really a little bit too early to pass judgment on what the lay of the land will be.

“So give it a couple of weeks and we’ll have a better picture.”

But for the prosecutor leaving the Crown’s office, it’s already too late.

She said she knows what the impact will be and she’s had enough.

“The slash and burn approach has already put public safety at risk,” she said.

“Waiting for the dust to settle increases that risk.”

Twitter: @TelyCourt