Exasperated that ongoing discussions with the Quebec government to improve working conditions have led to little progress, the Quebec Association of Crown Prosecutors has publicly taken to task the provincial government for the second time in three months.
The association is calling on the provincial government to hire another 220 crown prosecutors in order to halt an exodus of experienced lawyers resigning from their jobs to accept higher-paying positions. Over the past year, seven crown prosecutors quit their jobs at the Montreal courthouse, three of whom became Alberta provincial prosecutors where salaries are 40 per cent higher, says Association president Christian Leblanc.
“We cannot do the work with 430 prosecutors,” said Leblanc, a provincial crown prosecutor for the past 13 years. “We need at least 650 prosecutors in order to be able to adequately prepare our cases, meet with victims and witnesses, and read the jurisprudence. What we are denouncing, above all, is the workload. There is no doubt that it is having a negative impact on the quality of service we are able to offer to the public.”
According to statistics compiled by the Association, Quebec has the worst ratio of prosecutor per inhabitants in the country. At present, Quebec has one prosecutor per every 16,526 residents compared to one per 11, 916 in Ontario. The national average lies at one per 9,305.
But with salaries of Quebec Crown prosecutors, with the exception of seven prosecutors in Prince Edward Island, being the lowest in Canada, “nearly 50 per cent below certain other provinces,” Leblanc acknowledges that luring experienced prosecutors will be a daunting challenge at best.
“The problem we now face is that we are unable to recruit anyone but young lawyers without experience,” said Leblanc, a situation that was highlighted by the fact that the government had to turn to the private sector to hire a retired prosecutor on a contractual basis to assist a team of prosecutors in the high-profile Norbourg case. More than 900 criminal charges were laid last summer against six people in connection with the massive Norbourg Asset Management Inc. securities fraud.
The Association is calling on the Quebec government to launch an independent study that will examine the salaries and workload of Crown prosecutors across the country to pave the road for contract negotiations due next year. The Association last bargained in 2003 a three-year contract that began in 2004, a contract that was later extended by government decree to six years, ending in April 2010. The group is challenging the decree before the courts, arguing that it goes against the grain of the Supreme Court of Canada ruling in Health Services and Support – Facilities Subsector Bargaining Assn. v. British Columbia,  2 S.C.R. 391, 2007 SCC 27.
Unlike the Association of Justice Counsel, which would strike if they could because the federal government is about to pre-empt the union’s first contract talks, the Association has no intention of launching a walk-out as it did seven years ago when dissatisfied with the progress of contract negotiations with the government.
“We don’t want to be involved in a confrontation with the State,” said Leblanc. “It’s not in the interests of the public nor is in the interest of the image of justice to walk out in the street.”
According to Martine Bérubé, a Crown prosecutor speaking on behalf of Quebec’s Director of Criminal and Penal Prosecutions (DCPP), the Association is merely posturing and laying the groundwork for the upcoming contract negotiations.
“There is of course always room for improvement but there already has been some as we have added personnel and converted temporary positions into full-time, permanent ones,” said Bérubé.
Bérubé points out that over the past six years approximately 180 new jobs were created, on top of the 144 temporary positions that were converted into full-time, permanent jobs since March 2007, the majority of the hires being prosecutors.
Claude Girard, a Montreal Crown attorney who heads the 6,000-member Canadian Association of Crown Counsel, doubts that the wide gulf between the government and Quebec provincial Crown prosecutors will be resolved when — and if — there are contract negotiations next year. Current economic woes have given employers the decided hand, and it will be no surprise if federal and provincial governments enact decrees to restrain wage increases, says Girard.
That’s something that the federal government is already in the midst of doing, thanks to the tabling earlier this month of the Budget Implementation Act (Bill C-10), which would impose public sector-wide pay restraints.
“Governments will use the current economic crisis as a pretext, as the federal government did, to avoid negotiation and impose wage restraints on salaried employees,” said Girard. “It doesn’t look good.”