Albertans looking to avoid a trial can expect longer waits to see a judge to help expedite their dispute.
The Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench announced starting in the autumn, the numbers of judges hearing judicial dispute resolutions in Calgary and Edmonton will be reduced from three to two a week.
“Due to the ongoing shortage of judicial resources at the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta, the Court has been put in a position where it must curtail some of its services,” said Chief Justice Neil Wittman and Associate Chief Justice John Rooke in last week's announcement.
Judicial dispute resolutions are a form of alternative dispute resolution that allow counsel to present a case to a judge, who can then help to resolve it without going to a full trial.
JDRs are flexible and judges can use a variety of measure, including non-binding mini-trials and judicial mediation. They are most often used in personal injury cases, family law cases, and issues around employment and contracts
Craig Gillespie, a partner with Cuming & Gillespie, a Calgary-based personal injury firm, believes the reductions are a blow to access to justice.
“JDRs are an important part of trying to get a claim to resolution,” he says. “It’s an opportunity for both sides to sit down, speak with a judge and get thoughts from a judge and try to work towards a resolution.”
According to Gillespie, JDRs are often a quicker and more efficient way to handle a dispute than going to trial.
“You can go and have a meeting with a judge in maybe one or two days and the plaintiffs explain their side of the case and defendants can explain their side of the case.
“You get the opportunity to get some feedback from a judge and some of them can facilitate mediation type discussions which is very helpful.”
Gillespie says the end result is often that clients save time and money by spending a day with a judge instead of stretching out a trial over four or five weeks.
Over the past three decades, JDRs have become an institutionalized part of the Alberta court system. Alberta was the first province to regularly schedule sittings for judges to hear JDRs.
In his Masters of Law thesis submitted in 2010, Rooke surveyed 374 lawyers and 197 clients that had participated in the JDR program. He found that 96 per cent of lawyers were repeat users and that 93 per cent would recommend using them in the future. The survey also showed a high success rate, with 89 per cent of cases being successfully resolved.
“It is my belief, based on the survey data and the literature, that JDR has proven to be of great worth—or success—to the resolution of disputes in the Court,” wrote Rooke. “There has been individual case success and institutional success
(the reduction of trial time and trial waiting periods) and the individual case success has resulted in growing demand for the service by the parties. That is, JDR has led to success, which success has led to increased demand, which leads to greater success — it is, in essence, a upward spiral of exponential success/demand.”
The Alberta government for years has bemoaned what it believes is a shortage of justices on the Queen’s Bench.
Gillespie points out the Trial Lawyers of Alberta and provincial bar associations have been actively lobbying for more judges.
“Litigation lawyers recognize that cutting back on JDRs is not going to be helpful to our clients.”