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Considering Bill 21’s impact on Alberta justice

Phase 2 of Provincial Administrative Penalties Act delayed last month while critics and supporters continue to consider implications
An RCMP patrol car

ATHABASCA – While it has been delayed for more public consultation, Phase 2 of the Alberta government’s Bill 21 is rubbing some the wrong way as a potential degradation of one’s Charter right to be presumed innocent, while others see it as an efficient way to relieve a bloated and slow-moving judicial system. 

Phase 1 of the Provincial Administrative Penalties Act came into effect in the fall of 2020, creating an adjudication branch with a mandate to resolve impaired driving-related contraventions of the Traffic Safety Act and strengthen the administrative penalties for impaired driving. Phase 2, originally scheduled to come into effect by the end of 2021, will expand the jurisdiction of that adjudication branch to address all other contraventions of the Traffic Safety Act, except those that result in bodily harm or death, but was delayed in a joint statement from Acting Minister of Justice Sonya Savage and Minister of Transportation Rajan Sawhney Jan. 26. 

Their statement noted that since Phase 1 was implemented, the SafeRoads initiative saw about 89 per cent of impaired driving cases diverted away from the courts between Dec. 2020 and Dec. 31, 2021. Alberta courts see 400,000 traffic tickets every year, the ministers pointed out, and about 60,000 of them go to trial. 

“Alberta’s court system is facing a significant backlog. Quite simply, that means serious criminals are getting back onto the streets because the courts are bogged down with traffic issues. This is unacceptable … That is not sustainable nor is it an efficient use of our valuable court resources. 

“We have heard the concerns Albertans raised when a training document was reported on. It’s important that people understand the training document did not reflect what the program is and what the benefits are for Albertans. 

“However, we have clearly heard from Albertans who shared their thoughts with us on traffic safety in this province. That is why we are pausing the rollout of Phase 2.” 

Critics, like Athabasca lawyer Tim Verhaege, say that while the initiative sounds good in theory, he questions at what cost it will come, particularly in Phase 2, which has now been delayed for three to four months. Instead of going to court to challenge a ticket, Albertans would apply for a review from an adjudicator and that review would come at a cost. 

Albertans would have seven days to contest a ticket, along with a requirement to pay a non-refundable fee of either $50 for a fine under $299, or $150 for a fine over $299. 

“If one is accused of something, they should be able to proceed to court and have a fair trial. It is for the Crown to prove the elements of the offence. It should not be the other way around,” Verhaege told Great West Media in a recent e-mail. 

A fee requirement to fight a ticket, to Verhaeghe, means that to prove innocence people will have to pay, which goes against the principal belief system of innocent until proven guilty. 

“This can present a barrier to justice, which I don’t agree with,” he said. “It does not seem right or just.” 

He said he is also concerned with the time limit on fighting the ticket. Under the new system, an accused would have seven days to fight a ticket they received in the mail, while most orders in Alberta are subject to a 30-day appeal period. He worries that, in our COVID world, a ticket may not make it through Canada Post in time. 

Athabasca town council discussed a letter from the Town of Gibbons expressing its council’s concern at both the province’s apparent intention to move to a provincial police force, and Bill 21, at their Feb. 15 regular meeting. Athabasca’s top cop was also in attendance for his quarterly report and shared a little about how the bill has been affecting his detachment’s work. 

Staff Sgt. Mark Hall responded to Coun. Dave Pacholok’s question about his opinion on Bill 21, saying impaired driving investigations can be quite long and drawn out. 

“It takes members off the road for up to three or four hours for that evening; it’s time-consuming,” he told council. “With the province bringing in these measures, it’s actually very quick for members to deal with it on the roadside. And from my experience, the penalties people receive can be a lot more severe and they learn the lesson a little bit quicker on that side.” 

Later in the meeting while discussing the letter from Gibbons, which was eventually accepted as information, Coun. Pacholok said anything that frees up time for officers on duty is probably a positive thing. 

“I'm just saying that it may be a good thing and it kind of sounded like it from the staff sergeant,” he said. 

“My only problem with Bill 21 is that it appears that you're guilty before proven innocent instead of innocent before proven guilty. That's my read on the bill itself,” said Coun. Edie Yuill, adding that Phase 2 sees it expanded to all provincial highway laws, not just impaired driving. 

Phase 3 of the Provincial Administrative Penalties Act will expand the administrative adjudication process such that it could be adopted and adapted for use by any regulated area of provincial jurisdiction. The timeline for Phase 3 will be determined upon the conclusion of Phase 2. 

  • With files from Jessica Nelson 

Chris Zwick

About the Author: Chris Zwick

Athabasca Advocate editor
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