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Committee studying possibility of restorative justice process in Alberta courts

Tuesday, August 18, 2020 @ 9:24 AM | By Ian Burns


Alberta’s Court of Queen’s Bench is looking at bringing in a pilot project which would refer some court matters in the province to a restorative justice system, as a means of addressing access to justice issues and creating more efficiencies in the system.

Restorative justice is a system where all parties affected by an offence, such as the victim, the offender and community members, voluntarily participate in a discussion about the causes, circumstances and impact of the offence. Dialogue takes place, with the assistance of an impartial facilitator, who engages stakeholders to identify the harm of the offence, discuss its impact and recommend what needs to be done to assist in creating more meaningful outcomes.

Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Anna Loparco, who serves as committee chair, said the idea behind restorative justice is to “repair the harm that is done by a crime.”

“The purpose is to bring the community back together and determine the best way to deal with the harm to the victim and to allow the offender the opportunity to take responsibility, as they are often known to each other and are part of a larger community,” she said. “It makes sense to have all the stakeholders including the community involved in finding a custom approach to the healing which is required.”

Any referral process would focus on criminal matters. Domestic violence cases, sexual offences and other offences that engage a power disparity between parties will only be referred in exceptional circumstances. Justice Loparco said restorative justice could be used in other contexts such as civil disputes but she said at the present there are established agencies in the province with a good background in dealing with criminal justice matters, particularly youth issues, “so that is a good place to start.”

Justice Loparco said she and one of her fellow judges, Justice Beverley Browne, began discussing the possibility of restorative justice programs in Alberta last year.

“So, then we started the committee and we got uptake almost immediately from many stakeholders, such as the Crown and Indigenous groups in Alberta,” she said. “We took it to the point where we made a recommendation to the [court’s] executive board to back it as kind of a pilot project, which was approved.”

The committee is in the process of bringing in a set of policies, procedures and training programs and working to create a roster of professionals and then identifying what special characteristics or expertise they have to help with the restorative justice process, with an eye to launching a pilot project in the fall. Justice Loparco said such experience could include working with LGBTQ+ and Indigenous groups, or on youth matters.

“We would then like to pool all those resources together and for the pilot project at least have a number of judges and justices who are willing to canvass the idea with counsel, and only if counsel is willing then those resources would be provided,” she said. “The idea is they would either adjourn whatever process is in place so then they could go and try the restorative justice process. We are also co-operating with the provincial court because we would like there to one unified approach to this.”

Restorative justice programs are currently in place in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Nova Scotia, and in November 2018 federal and provincial justice and public safety ministers agreed to increase the use of restorative justice processes by a minimum target of five per cent per jurisdiction, where possible, over a three-year period.

Justice Loparco said the criminal justice system faces a number of serious challenges such as delay and backlog, which have become particularly acute as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Access to justice has been a problem for a long time, as well as over-representation of marginalized people, and we have heard a lot about a lack of public confidence in the system,” she said. “This is another way to address the backlog in the system, and hopefully create some cost and time efficiencies.”

Justice Loparco said the committee meets again in September and is accepting new members. Questions about the restorative justice committee can be sent to elise.russell@albertacourts.ca or B.browne@albertacourts.ca.

If you have any information, story ideas or news tips for The Lawyer’s Daily please contact Ian Burns at Ian.Burns@lexisnexis.ca or call 905-415-5906.