Legal group concerned about prisoner review system

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A prison justice group in Alberta says the province’s trial court is denying inmates their right to challenge the terms of their incarceration, including the use of solitary confinement, by too quickly dismissing their claims as frivolous.

In a letter to the head of Alberta’s Court of King’s Bench, the group, an organization of lawyers and law students known as the Alberta Prison Justice Society, says its members have lost faith in the court’s handling of habeas corpus applications.

Habeas corpus is a centuries-old avenue remedy which allows people to claim that they are being unjustly deprived of their liberty. These requests have priority in the judicial system. Through them, inmates can challenge solitary confinement, parole conditions or relocation to high-security prisons.

The letter says the Alberta court routinely dismisses habeas corpus applications as an abuse of process, depriving plaintiffs of the opportunity to have their cases heard and making it harder for them to find lawyers willing to take cases. in charge.

“Whether inadvertently or by design, the current approach to adjudicating habeas corpus applications has created a chill within Alberta’s prison justice bar,” reads the letter dated October 27 and addressed to Chief Justice Mary Moreau. A copy was obtained by The Globe and Mail.

The letter also accuses the judges of making life difficult for lawyers and prisoners who file habeas corpus suits. “The targeting of lawyers with inflammatory language and threats of personal punishment, the refusal to recognize and apply the law of habeas corpus and the dismissive attitude towards habeas corpus applications have led to a decrease the number of lawyers in Alberta willing to act for prisoners in these proceedings,” it says.

alberta established an expedited process for reviewing habeas corpus applications in 2018 that put them through what’s called Civil Practice Note 7, a special court procedure used to deal with problematic litigants who waste court time .

The letter from the Alberta Prison Justice Society says this resulted in petitions worthy of being deemed “frivolous” and “vexatious.” The group says these problems have persisted for more than four years.

The letter refers to two decisions of the Alberta Court of Appeal. In each case, the higher court objected to the way the Court of King’s Bench handled the case.

One of the rulings involved Wayne Wilcox, who spent nearly 500 days in solitary confinement at the Edmonton Remand Center, where he was only allowed an hour a day outside his cell. The inmate said he was placed in solitary confinement when he was arrested because he was injured and staff at the facility believed he was “unable to defend himself”. Mr Wilcox said the lockdown had caused his mental health to deteriorate.

He filed for habeas corpus in January 2019, but a chambers judge called it “abusive and vexatious proceedings” and the case was not heard. The court said he was not deprived of his liberty, as he was placed directly in solitary confinement, rather than being transferred there from the general population, meaning there was no no change in his situation. Mr. Wilcox was ordered to pay $1,500 in court costs.

The Court of Appeal overturned the decision later in 2019. Mr Wilcox had already been released by then, but a three-judge panel said the issue should be decided regardless, as it was ” of significant importance”.

“The chambers judge erred in finding that the pleadings are defective and constitute an independent basis for striking them out, and also that they constitute a abusive and vexatious filing,” the appeal decision said. The panel also criticized the lower court for threatening to impose costs on Mr Wilcox’s lawyer, which it said could have a chilling effect on lawyers taking on such cases.

In the other case, Chancey Heiser was on parole following a conviction for sexual assault, but his parole was revoked after facing new charges. He filed a habeas corpus petition, arguing against dismissal, but a judge ruled the matter was for the parole board, not the court.

The Court of Appeal dismissed Mr. Heiser’s appeal, but also found that the lower court should have heard the case as a habeas corpus claim and that it was not an abuse of procedure.

In that decision, a three-judge panel denounced Alberta’s blanket approach to dealing with habeas corpus claims. The justices said the writ of habeas corpus is a constitutionally protected right, which “cannot be taken away by court order or practice direction”, and that there is “no basis” for processing applications under Civil Practice Note 7 in Alberta.

In its letter, the law firm says dozens of claims have been denied on similar grounds and notes that many litigants have represented themselves and been sidelined. One of the reasons Mr. Heiser and Mr. Wilcox were able to appeal is that they were represented.

The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the letter.

Darryl Ruether, spokesperson for the Alberta Court of King’s Bench, said in a statement that the court plans to address those concerns directly with the company. He said the current process allows the court to make habeas corpus applications to judges as quickly as possible.

“All such claims are heard and decided by a judge of the court who assesses the facts, the proper procedure and the applicable law,” he said. “The Court does not rule on the merits of individual decisions, but it goes without saying that the Alberta Court of King’s Bench is bound by the decisions of the Alberta Court of Appeal. »

Diane Carter, spokeswoman for Alberta’s Department of Justice, said in a statement that the government is aware of the letter and is reviewing its contents.

Mark Mancini, a doctoral student at the University of British Columbia’s Allard School of Law who specializes in administrative law, says the Court of King’s Bench is “significantly abusing” the ability to label someone a litigant vexatious. He said it denies prisoners an avenue to challenge the conditions of their incarceration.

He said it was necessary to have controls in place to prevent problem litigants from clogging up the court system, but those controls could not erode legal protections. “It kind of tears at the patchwork of our legal heritage,” he said. “It closes the doors of the courtroom to people before they even start.”

Gerard Kennedy, an assistant professor in the University of Manitoba’s law department, said the Court of King’s Bench is more willing and more likely to dismiss claims as abusive than any other trial court in Canada, and not just in the case of habeas corpus.

Dr. Kennedy said the Manitoba equivalent of Alberta’s Civil Practice Note 7 is almost never used. To his knowledge, he added, similar procedures have not been used to process habeas corpus applications outside of Alberta.

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