Court Site Study of Adult Unrepresented Accused in the Provincial Criminal Courts (Part 2: Site Reports)

Chapter 5: Edmonton, Alberta

5.1 Objectives and methodology

The Department of Justice and the Federal/Provincial/Territorial Permanent Working Group on Legal Aid engaged the research team to measure:

  • The frequency with which accused persons are appearing before the court without representation – at different stages of the court process.
  • The impacts of self-represented accused – on themselves, on other groups involved in the court process, and on the courts in total.

A brief overview of the full national study  – covering nine court sites –was presented in Chapter 1. The methodology for the Edmonton part of the national study followed a strategy for data collection and site visits similar to that followed in the other sites.

The methodology involved data collection and site visits.  Information was available on the question of unrepresented accused from three sources:

  • A Disposed Cases sample, created for the project, containing key data, including representation, on all appearances for a total of 620 cases. 
  • Direct Observation of 916 appearances in first appearance and summary disposition courts over ten days during March of 2002; trials were rarely observed.
  • Interviews with key informants (judges, Crowns, Legal Aid staff duty counsel, court administration, private bar members, local service agencies, etc.), whose anonymity was assured. 

Throughout this project, we have received excellent co-operation and assistance from all those we asked to participate in the study.  We also readily acknowledge the very able assistance and expertise of the Edmonton-based researcher who conducted the court observations and created the disposed cases file.

5.2 Context of the court and legal aid

One of the major conclusions of this research – supported by the data from all sites – was that data on the extent of legal representation in a particular court cannot be interpreted out of the context of (at least):

  • The type of community served (including the nature of accused persons brought before the court).
  • The resources and management and operations practices in place in the courts.
  • Legal aid policies and practices.
  • The duty counsel system in place.
  • The policies and practices of all of the other key participants in the court process – including the judiciary, the police, the Crown attorneys, court administrators, the private bar and other supporting agencies.

All of these factors, policies and practices can have significant mitigating or exacerbating influences on the impacts of self-representation.  This contextual information is thus essential to understanding the problems and potential solutions to challenges related to the unrepresented accused.

This section will specifically address the first four of the above areas.  Information on the fifth is contained throughout the report.

5.2.1 The community

Located near the geographic center of Alberta, Edmonton is the province's capital city. Edmonton is a thriving centre for business, and enjoys a diverse economy. The population density of 974 per square kilometre is one of the lowest of major Canadian cities. About 85 percent of Edmonton residents have indicated English is the language spoken at home, with the next most common language reported being Chinese, at four percent. French is spoken by 0.62 percent of residents.

The population of the city of Edmonton was 666,104 in 2001. Compared to the previous Census (1996) the city population showed an 8.1 percent increase, slightly less than the increase the province as a whole experienced (10.3 percent). The population of the Edmonton Census Metropolitan Area (CMA) was 937,845 in 2001, an increase of 8.7 percent. Approximately 22 percent of males and 21 percent of females in Edmonton were in the 15-to-29 age range associated with the highest rates of crime.

The average income of those in the labour force aged 15 years and older was reported as $24,783. The overall average income for Edmonton residents was slightly below the provincial average of $26,196. Both women and men from Edmonton reported average income levels below the provincial average for their gender.

The unemployment rate for the city of Edmonton, as reported in 2001, was 4.9 percent, lower than the rate for the province as a whole (5.6 percent).

Overall, the population of Edmonton reported higher average education levels than the provincial population. The proportion of population of Edmonton over age 25 reported to have completed university was 19.9 percent, compared to 17.4 percent for the province of Alberta.  At the same time, Edmonton had a slightly higher proportion of people over 25 years of age reporting less than Grade 9, compared to provincial levels.

The estimated number of single-parent families in Edmonton in 2001 was 30,941 or 17 percent out of 182,986 families. The provincial rate for single-parent families was estimated to be 12.5 percent in that same year.

Of the estimated 271,239 occupied private dwellings in Edmonton in 2001, close to 60 percent (157,487) were owner-occupied, and 113,752 were rented. In the province of Alberta as a whole for the same year, the estimate was 68 percent for owner-occupied private dwellings.

Rates of violent crime in Edmonton increased from 1999 to 2000 by 8.2 percent, compared to the provincial decline in violent crime of 0.1 percent. The rate of violent crime in Edmonton in 2000 was 941 per 100,000 population. Property crime rates in Edmonton decreased from 1999 to 2000 by 2.6 percent, compared to a provincial decrease of 7.0 percent. The rate of property crime in Edmonton was reported as 4,680 per 100,000 population. Total overall crime in Edmonton decreased by 1.9 percent from 1999 to 2000. The rate of overall crime in Edmonton was reported as 8,377 per 100,000, about the same as the provincial rate (8,822). The total number of crimes committed in Edmonton (excluding traffic offences) was 79,095 for the year 2000

5.2.2 The court

The Edmonton courthouse comprises:

  • Twelve Queen's Bench criminal courtrooms
  • Fifteen Provincial Court criminal courtrooms
One Queen's Bench bail courtroom  
  • Courtrooms handle both adult and youth
  • Do not split drugs and CCC
Twelve Queen's Bench trial courtrooms  
Three Provincial Court docket courtrooms
  • One federal and drug, then federal trials
  • Two CCC
Twelve Provincial Court trial courtrooms    
Edmonton Hearing Office open 24/7 for bail hearings or other warrants needing hearings before a JP (remanded next day to docket court)    
One Special court One super-large courtroom Shared between Queen's Bench and Provincial Court

There are no Circuit Courts operating from the Edmonton courthouse.

The Edmonton courthouse is covered by the Adult Criminal Court Survey (ACCS) conducted by Statistics Canada. Based on data from the ACCS, the breakdown of cases for 2000/01 for Edmonton and for all of Alberta is presented in the table below.

Disposed Cases by Type of Offence: Comparison of Edmonton and Alberta for 2000/2001
  Edmonton Percentage Edmonton Alberta Percentage – Alberta
Total Cases Disposed 18,551   65,228  
Homicide 22 0.1 65 0.1
Attempted Murder 4 0.0 21 0.0
Robbery 241 1.3 555 0.9
Kidnapping 13 0.1 69 0.1
Sexual Assault 166 0.9 638 1.0
Sexual Abuse 51 0.3 180 0.3
Major Assault 1,049 5.7 2,954 4.7
Abduction 13 0.1 32 0.1
Common Assault 1,910 10.3 7,154 11.5
Break & Enter 419 2.3 1,586 2.5
Arson 20 0.1 66 0.1
Fraud 1,213 6.5 3,432 5.5
Possess Stolen Property 816 4.4 2,542 4.1
Theft 2,435 13.1 7,079 11.4
Property Damage/Mischief 668 3.6 2,294 3.7
Weapons 375 2.0 1,140 1.8
Administration of Justice 2,728 14.7 7,716 12.4
Public Order Offences 626 3.4 2,083 3.3
Morals – Sexual 360 1.9 560 0.9
Morals – Gaming/Betting 23 0.1 76 0.1
Other Criminal Code 1,571 8.5 5,988 9.6
Criminal Code Traffic 384 2.1 1,442 2.3
Impaired Driving 1,987 10.7 9,162 14.7
Traffic/Import Drugs 778 4.2 1,774 2.8
Possession Drugs 496 2.7 2,334 3.7
Other Federal Statute 183 1.0 1,346 2.2

Source: Adult Criminal Court Survey, Statistics Canada

Examination of the ACCS data above suggests that the profile of offence types handled by the Edmonton courthouse does not differ greatly from the profile for Alberta as a whole.

5.2.3 Legal aid

Criminal legal aid in Alberta is administered by the Legal Aid Society of Alberta. With the exception of duty counsel, provided by Society staff lawyers in certain locations (including Edmonton), representation of persons eligible for criminal legal aid is provided by members of the private bar on certificates. Payment for these services is made in accordance with the legal aid tariff, or schedule of fees.

In criminal matters, financially eligible adults may be covered by legal aid certificates if they have been charged with an indictable offence; or if they have been charged with a summary conviction offence where there is a likelihood, on conviction, of incarceration or loss of the means to earn a livelihood; or where there are other circumstances, such as mental health or language issues.      

Applications for legal aid in Edmonton are taken at the courthouse (in an office located directly outside the first-appearance courtroom), at the main Legal Aid office, and at the Remand Centre. The current average waiting period for certificates to be issued for approved applicants is approximately five calendar (not working) days. Very few of the informants interviewed in Edmonton believe that an accused with a certificate is likely to experience any real difficulty finding a private lawyer willing to take his or her case.      

Individuals who are ineligible for legal aid because of the minor nature of the charges they face, but who meet a financial eligibility test, may qualify for assistance from Student LegalServices, provided by the Law School at the University of Alberta. The Elizabeth Fry Society and Native Counselling Services of Alberta provide non-legal assistance to any accused who approaches them in the Edmonton courthouse.

5.2.4 Duty counsel

Virtually all duty counsel services in Edmonton are provided by two lawyers on the staff of Legal Aid Alberta. These individuals are both experienced counsel who enjoy an excellent reputation within the courthouse (particularly among the judges). They have both been with the duty counsel service since its inception eight years ago. Duty counsel used to be paid approximately the same salaries as Crowns, but have lately fallen behind by about $30 K.

Duty counsel in Edmonton always push unrepresented accused to get counsel one way or another. They attend at the Remand Centre every weekday before the courts open. There, they interview any accused in custody who wish to speak to them. No assessment of eligibility for legal aid is made at this point in time. In essence, their policy is to "take all comers."

During their interviews with unrepresented accused, duty counsel will make them aware of legal aid and how to make an application. They will also give the Legal Aid office a "heads-up" when they want to ensure that an individual accused pursues an application. Duty counsel also attend at docket court, where they are available to all to assist in having their cases remanded, and to assist unrepresented accused who wish to plead guilty at this time. They speak to the Crown about these cases only at that point, and not before.  They will also alert the judge when an accused wants to plead guilty to "get it over with," even when he or she is in fact, not guilty.

Because there is only two-duty counsel, when an accused has more than one contact with them, they can provide an element of continuity of service.

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