The Alberta government announced Wednesday it is putting the brakes on its controversial plan to overhaul how people in the province can fight traffic tickets.
The changes are part of Bill 21, which became law in 2020.
“We have clearly heard from Albertans who shared their thoughts with us on traffic safety in this province,” reads a joint statement from Minister of Transportation Rajan Sawhney and Acting Minister of Justice and Solicitor General Sonya Savage.
“That is why we are pausing the rollout of Phase 2 (of the SafeRoads Alberta plan).
“We will take the next 90 to 120 days to ensure that we communicate and consult with Albertans and that they are educated on the changes proposed in Phase 2. We will listen to what Albertans have to say and we will share the benefits of these changes with them.”
A government spokesperson told Global News details about how the province will consult with Albertans on the matter are still being worked out.
Upcoming changes to Alberta traffic courts ‘removing access to justice’: critics
On its website, the government says its plan to overhaul how traffic ticket disputes are dealt with aims to “change how we penalize impaired drivers and handle traffic ticket disputes by taking them out of the courts to free up court and police resources to focus on the most serious offences.”
Phase 1 of the plan saw the province create an adjudication branch tasked with resolving impaired driving-related offences under the Traffic Safety Act and bring in stiffer administrative penalties for impaired driving.
In its news release Wednesday, the government called Phase 1 of the plan a success.
“Between Dec. 1, 2020 and Dec. 31, 2021, approximately 89 per cent of impaired driving cases have been diverted from the courts while ensuring that impaired drivers face steep and significant penalties,” the government said.
Lethbridge police, MADD support new Alberta bill for impaired driving penalties
Phase 2 of the plan is to “expand the jurisdiction of the adjudication branch to address all other contraventions of the Traffic Safety Act, except those that result in bodily harm or death, by the end of 2021.”
The plan also sees drivers forced to pay a fee if they wish to dispute a traffic ticket. The policy allows only seven days for a person to respond to a contravention they were informed of, often by mail, like in the case of speeding tickets.
Any applications to contest the administrative penalties would require paying a fee and going in front of an online adjudicator, not a justice. Limitations on evidence can be set, but the method of review excludes in-person hearings.
A report from Alberta’s justice ministry claims changes to the Administrative Penalties Information System would “divert approximately two million tickets from the court system to the administrative model where traffic tickets can be addressed online, eliminating approximately 500,000 in-person visits that Albertans make to traffic courts every year.”
“Alberta’s court system is facing a significant backlog,” Sawhney and Savage said. “Quite simply, that means serious criminals are getting back onto the streets because the courts are bogged down with traffic issues. This is unacceptable.
“Every year, more than two million traffic tickets are issued in Alberta. Of those tickets, 400,000 are challenged. This results in more than 60,000 challenges to traffic tickets receiving court dates.”
Sawhney and Savage also claimed “many repeat offenders in the rural crime epidemic have their court dates delayed by the thousands of traffic cases crowding the courts.”
However, when Global News asked Alberta Transportation and Alberta Justice if it would be possible to provide specific examples of when criminals have been released back onto the streets due to traffic court, no examples were given in the government’s response.
The changes included in Phase 2 of the plan were to take effect Feb. 1. Opposition justice critic Irfan Sabir issued a statement on Wednesday criticizing the $50 to $150 non-refundable fee Albertans would have to pay to challenge tickets, as well as the seven-day limit on taking steps to challenge a ticket.
“The reality is that many Albertans are struggling financially and can’t produce $150 within seven days,” Sabir said. “If they are unable to produce that money, it means many working Albertans will be prevented from making their voices heard and denied access to justice.”
Ian Runkle, a lawyer based in Edmonton, told Global News he has concerns with the traffic ticket changes on a number of fronts.
“The impact on people, especially marginalized people, is going to be huge,” he said. “You might be wrongfully accused and still not be able to afford to challenge that.
“Instead of having a right to a trial date, it’s something you can buy… ‘We’ll sell you one.'”
Runkle said he believes the changes essentially amount to a new tax.
“The benefits that they’re talking about here are really financial for the province,” he said. “They want to make it cost less to issue tickets so they can earn more money in the process.”
Runkle added that the new adjudication aspect of the changes are problematic when it comes to the open courts principle. He said it is important for the justice system to not be seen as shrouded in secrecy and that the process should be open to being viewed by the public.
The Alberta government’s overhaul of traffic changes has come under increasing scrutiny ever since news broke earlier this month that former justice minister Kaycee Madu called Edmonton’s police chief to discuss the circumstances regarding a distracted driving ticket he was given.
Madu, who has since said he regrets calling to discuss the ticket while adding he was not seeking to have it rescinded, was removed from his cabinet post over the incident until an investigation into the matter is completed.
Suspended Alberta justice minister says he called police chief to check he wasn’t being profiled
Madu, who is Black, said he raised concerns about racial profiling and police surveillance of politicians in his phone call with Chief Dale McFee.
Runkle noted the changes to the adjudication process brought in by Bill 21 would make it difficult for someone like Madu to raise concerns about the possibility of racial profiling, since a defendant can no longer cross-examine witnesses.
“The process itself is not going to be a fair trial in the sense that we normally think about it,” he said.
Runkle added that even though the government has said it will pause the rollout of the changes, he is concerned that the province does not seem to have addressed specific criticism of the plan aside from acknowledging some people are concerned.
–With files from Adam Toy, Global News
© 2022 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.