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'The system is not functioning': Lack of forensic experts adding to already mounting court backlog


The backlog of legal cases continues to grow in Edmonton, a defence lawyer says, as both Crown prosecutors and defence attorneys struggle to find available forensic psychologists and experts.

Usually called upon during sentencing for serious crimes like sexual assaults, murder, or child pornography, forensic psychologists connect the practice of psychology with the law.

In December, one prosecutor requesting a dangerous offender assessment told the court they have a pool of approximately 12 to 15 qualified professionals to rely on in Alberta, with none having the capacity to take on additional work.

Shawn King, a defence lawyer, says the entire system "is backing up," even starting to impact forensic technicians, drug experts and private investigators.

"Justice is delayed, and when justice is delayed, that affects everyone," King said.

The legal system is still struggling to overcome delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and then a series of labour disputes between the province and both Crown attorneys and Legal Aid Alberta.

"[People] could potentially spend more time in custody than they would if they just plead guilty and got the sentencing done right up front or found guilty and do the sentencing without the report," King added.

"For someone out of custody, it's not nearly as bad, but it keeps them on pins and needles, it keeps them on waiting what their fates going to be; it keeps them on bail conditions that may be exceptionally restrictive."

There are also further downstream impacts to consider, like delays to witnesses who want closure on their files or judge availabilities, King added.

"So if we have something that's happening four months or eight months down the line waiting for the report, then we still have to book time with the judge, and if the reports late, we have to find time with that judge again or time with that court again," he said.

When the defence requests a forensic psychologist, it's paid for privately or, in most cases, by legal aid. King says the rate needs to be higher for many forensic experts, not just psychologists, they once relied on.

"It's not worth their time to be taking on such a low rate," King told CTV News Edmonton. "They start becoming in hot demand or high demand and then their workload gets heavier and heavier and then things start getting pushed back because they just can't do it all in one shot."

King estimates if the legal aid tariff for forensic experts was raised and was indexed to inflation, more would do the work.

"Even psychologists that used to do legal aid work for me five years ago, they say, 'Look, inflation has gone up and the rate has stayed the same,'" he said.

The province recently increased legal aid rates for lawyers but has yet to respond to CTV News Edmonton when asked if the same would be done for the various forensic experts.

When requesting comment, Alberta Justice directed CTV News Edmonton to Alberta Health Services. AHS said no one was available to comment. It has not responded to emails on the matter since publication.

"Eventually, what will happen is we start getting applications to have matters stayed because they've taken too long to be completed," King said. "So it just compounds over time."

King says if the backlog doesn't improve, it could impact more than just the criminal court.

"Family matters where people are trying to get divorces or access to their children or property will get pushed off, civil litigation gets pushed off, dealing with wills and probation and things along those lines, all that stuff gets pushed off because criminal court takes precedent," he said.

"Closure is a part of the justice system at the end of all of this. And if closure's taking longer and longer, the public needs to know this. The public needs to know that the system is not functioning the way it should be." Top Stories

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