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Alberta lawyer calls province's pay-to-fight traffic ticket program 'barrier to justice'

Planned rollout of program that would make significant changes to traffic court has been paused for public consultation.
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St. Albert lawyer, Tim Verhaeghe.

ST. ALBERT – Lawyer Tim Verhaeghe said he is happy to see the province hit pause on its initial plans for the second phase of the SafeRoads pay-to-fight traffic ticket program.

“I was not and I am not a fan of what the provincial government was trying to accomplish with this. In theory, it sounds good … but at what cost?” said the Freedom Law lawyer in an emailed response to the St. Albert Gazette. 

The program would force Alberta drivers to pay a fee to fight a traffic ticket, with only a week's worth of time to fight it.

On Jan. 26, Minister of Transporation Rajan Sawhney and Acting Minister of Justice and Solicitor General Sonya Savage announced in a joint press statement they would be pausing Phase 2 of SafeRoads after criticism from the public and legal experts alike that the program puts the onus on individuals to prove their innocence at a price and takes away their right to a fair trial.

Bill 21: The Provincial Administrative Penalties Act, was introduced in June 2020. Phase one of the rollout began this past December and changed roadside sanctions for impaired drivers.

Sawhney and Savage had heard several concerns from Albertans after a training document was reported on, according to the press statement. The ministers will take 90 to 120 days to communicate and consult with the public, instead of rolling out the program on Feb. 1 as initially planned.

“We will listen to what Albertans have to say and we will share the benefits of these changes with them,” the statement read.

Phase two of the program was created to deal with traffic infractions such as speeding and distracted driving, which government documents say was expected to divert around two million traffic tickets out of the court system and into an administrative model.

The press statement said of that two million traffic tickets, around 400,000 of them are challenged, and around 60,000 of those tickets receive court dates.

Under the new system, instead of going to court to challenge a ticket, Albertans would apply for a review from an adjudicator and that review would come at a cost.

Albertans would have seven days to contest a ticket, along with a requirement to pay a non-refundable fee of either $50 for a fine under $299, or $150 for a fine over $299.

Verhaeghe said he has concerns about the second phase of the program.

“If one is accused of something, they should be able to proceed to court and have a fair trial. It is for the Crown to prove the elements of the offence. It should not be the other way around,” he said.

A fee requirement to fight a ticket, to Verhaeghe, means that to prove innocence people will have to pay, which goes against the principal belief system of innocent until proven guilty.

“This can present a barrier to justice, which I don’t agree with,” he said.

Verhaeghe said he also has concerns about the time limit on fighting the ticket. Under the new system, an accused would have seven days to fight a ticket they received in the mail, while most orders in Alberta are subject to a 30-day appeal period. He worries that, in our COVID world, a ticket may not make it through Canada Post in time.

“What if an accused is a shift worker, or is working away from their home address, or are unavailable to check their mail for whatever reason and are convicted in their absence? It does not seem right or just,” he said.

When asked about faults in the current system, Verhaeghe said he has no issues with how it has been done, saying it has been effective.

Verhaeghe said the clerk of the court would have a ticket list, and read out the names on the list. The judge would then ask anyone who heard their name to step forward.

“The accused would then enter a plea or address the court in some fashion. Those that didn’t step forward, or who weren’t there, would be convicted in their absence,” he explained.

The judge would also ask anyone who had a ticket but did not hear their name to step forward.

“It was a good system,” he said.

“[It] gave the accused time to speak with lawyers, duty counsel, the Crown prosecutor, or the police, and they would have time to make an informed decision,” he said.

The joint press statement from Sawhney and Savage stressed that people understand the “training documents did not reflect what the program is and what the benefits are for Albertans.”

“Alberta’s court system is facing a significant backlog. Quite simply, that means serious criminals are getting back onto the streets because the courts are bogged down with traffic issues. This is unacceptable,” the statement read.

Verhaeghe said he doesn’t disagree that the courts and police are busy or that resources are being stretched thin. He suggested the removal of the fee, and an adjustment to the response time to extend it beyond seven days to allow adequate time to respond.

Verhaeghe said the pause by the province seems reactionary.

“It’s as if the province was trying to implement it first and then wait for the reaction it would have. Having said that, at the least the province is willing to go back to the drawing board on this one, at least for the time being.”