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Mr. Swan's imprudent hiring blitz

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Justice Minister Andrew Swan believes he has found the fix for the overburdened prosecutions branch that juggles the tens of thousands of criminal charges entering the courts. That fix, bluntly, is hiring 53 more Crown attorneys and 29 more support staff. If only it were so simple.

The obvious problem with the minister's solution is that it is built on unchallenged assumptions. Simply adding more Crown attorneys will reduce work loads, period.

How many cases should a prosecutor carry at any given time? How many cases per year? How productive is the branch and how do prosecutors compare, i.e. will a complicated case involving organized crime take longer than that of a simple assault?

Mr. Swan says does not know. There was a report co-authored by provincial and Crown attorney representatives that discussed case load and the numbers required to make things manageable at the law courts, but that is not being released publicly.

But to know the appropriate number of cases would require some examination of the kinds of cases each Crown attorney is handling, the work required for each type of case and how many a prosecutor should be expected to manage at any one time. Logically, some of that should happen naturally. Yet, even among the prosecutors handling similar cases, productivity will vary and extremes should be examined.

Mr. Swan said that kind of analysis was not done before deciding to add more bodies to the prosecutions branch. He has little data beyond the fact an average 384 cases were opened last year per prosecutor, a drop of 69 since 2005.

The minister prefers to take the branch's word that everyone is working at capacity. That implies there is nothing to be learned from examining productivity, which is absurd, particularly in light of the fact that same exercise was undertaken at Legal Aid Manitoba. When measured against the private lawyers who take legal aid cases, and against each other within the government agency, the public defenders were found immediately to have variations in productivity handling cases of the same kind. Adjustments are being made.

Mr. Swan is proud of his government's record, doubling to 94 the support staff and hiring 48 more prosecutors, for a total of 132, since 1999. The agreement that halted an arbitration of a grievance by the prosecutors will see another 53 prosecutors added and 29 support staff by 2016. The 40 per cent increase in prosecutors makes the case that the current average case load is too high, but what evidence is there of this? Mr. Swan said he has not seen a provincial comparison. "Frankly, what they're doing in P.E.I. or Saskatchewan is less important," than listening to the prosecutors' own accounts, he says. It appears the number was settled as a result of horse-trading negotiations, not a demand that the branch prove it needs so many more bodies.

In six years, Manitobans will have seen the prosecutions branch more than double since the NDP came to power. The government will not say how much the coming additions will cost because it is entering into wage negotiations only now with the prosecutors. Mr. Swan's lack of careful attention to the details necessary for careful spending of tax dollars is a disservice that predicts unchecked spending.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 25, 2010 A12

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