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Ongoing salary freeze harming prosecutor retention

Not addressing it will result more unfilled positions, and less justice for rural Albertans.

Dollar in an ice cube

As one of the few departments to see an increase in the 2019 provincial budget, the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service will have funding for 50 new prosecutors over the next three years. This is a needed investment in a justice system that has gradually slipped into critical underfunding. However, with the government rejecting the recommendation of their own Blue Ribbon Panel to eliminate the long-standing salary freeze, the prospects for hiring and retaining these prosecutors are dim.

The Alberta Crown Attorneys’ Association, as the voluntary organization that represents prosecutors in Alberta, has raised two interrelated issues consistently with the government: resourcing and retention. Resourcing is simply having an adequate number of prosecutors to deliver the justice system that Albertans expect and deserve. Retention is the ability to attract and retain those prosecutors in a fluid legal market.

The complexity of criminal prosecutions continues to rise. The landmark Supreme Court of Canada decision R. v. Jordan in 2016 compressed the time for all prosecutions, thereby increasing the file load in any given time. Positive changes to how the system operates, such as the rise of body worn cameras for police, have resulted in significant increases in disclosure for prosecutors to review. The number and complexity of applications under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms also continues to increase. The combined effect of these and other issues has strained the prosecution service over the last five or more years. While many governments across Canada responded with significant hiring of prosecutors in response to Jordan, Alberta added no new positions. Instead, we saw the creation of the “vacancy discount” – prosecutors that exist on paper, but not in reality.

Budget 2019 does represent a potential departure from this slow decline of the Prosecution Service. The removal of the vacancy discount and the hiring of 50 new prosecutors could go a long way to address resourcing. However, the continued failure of the government to address the diminished ability of the Prosecution Service to attract and retain prosecutors makes those new prosecutors again only prosecutors on paper.

The salaries of prosecutors in Alberta have been frozen since April 1, 2016, with other previous freezes covering most of the past decade. While the salary for a new prosecutor in Alberta may initially be competitive, the reality of staying at the exact same salary for four years has resulted in the loss of many talented young prosecutors. Other prosecution services, such as the Public Prosecution Service of Canada, have a normal pay structure that sees small increases on a regular basis. The PPSC recently received an 8% increase over the next four years. This has made them a destination for many prosecutors that Albertans paid to train. Additionally, we have seen many prosecutors leave to private practice in recent years for purely financial reasons. The increased workload and frozen salary of the prosecution service have eclipsed any competitive advantage offered by a government position. While the financial situation that Alberta finds itself in is cause for concern for all Albertans, the fluid nature of the legal professional in Canada can mean that lawyers just go elsewhere.

Morale in the prosecution service has also taken a hit. The freeze has created a bizarre situation where new prosecutors are being paid more than current prosecutors of the same experience level. A new prosecutor is hired at the salary level associated to their experience level. A prosecutor of the same experience level who has been working faithfully for many years, however, has had their salary frozen at a lower level. The prosecutors who find themselves in this situation understandably feel unappreciated and undervalued for their service. Despite many requests, the government refuses to do anything other than repeatedly study this issue.

The Blue Ribbon Panel, commissioned by the current government and chaired by Janice MacKinnon, examined the long-standing salary freeze that affects the prosecution service. The panel, in its final report, noted that the freeze has led to problems in attraction, retention, and morale. Recommendation 11 was to end the freeze. The failure to do so makes the plan to hire 50 additional prosecutors a half-measure that cannot succeed.

As it seems to be with all issues of justice in Alberta, the rural areas are hit the hardest. Hiring in some rural offices was difficult when the prosecution service had competitive compensation. With that disappearing, some positions in rural offices have become unfillable. By not addressing the freeze, the result will be more unfilled positions, and less justice for rural Albertans.