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'Justice delayed is justice denied': Families, justice experts decry public fatality inquiry backlog


Alberta holds public fatality inquiries every year.

The inquiries are meant to help clarify the circumstances of certain deaths, with the goal of preventing similar deaths and protecting the public.

But critics say the system is not working, in part because of a major backlog including deaths from more than a decade ago.

"Justice delayed is justice denied and that's what's happening here," said Doug King, justice studies professor at Mount Royal University.

One hundred and one incidents fill Alberta's list of unscheduled fatality inquiries.

The oldest dates back to 2013.

There are also 34 more cases waiting for public fatality inquiries due to pending investigations and criminal matters.

This is often why some cases can go many years before they are heard.

'Left in limbo'

One of those incidents involves Anthony Heffernan.

The 27-year-old was a big achiever.

"He became a journeyman electrician in just over three years' time, which is absolutely unheard of," said his father, Pat Heffernan.

"He was extremely outgoing and also had an incredible sense of humour," said his mother, Irene Heffernan.

Everything changed on March 16, 2015.

A Calgary police officer shot Anthony to death in a northeast hotel room.

The province ordered a public fatality inquiry but it hasn't happened yet.

"We've just been in limbo. ... It'll be nine years this March," Irene Heffernan said.

Critics say delays come as a rule, rather than an exception.

"I don't agree with that," said Tom Engel, Alberta lawyer and president of the Canadian Prison Law Association.

"I think they should call a fatality inquiry and get right after it. If it's going to be useful to the public, it's got to be timely."

Other high-profile inquiries waiting to happen include one for social worker Deborah Onwu, who was stabbed by a group home member in October 2019, and one for a tour bus rollover on the Columbia Icefield that killed three passengers in July 2020.

Many of the other incidents are deaths in jails and police shootings like Heffernan's.

He battled addiction and was holding a lighter and syringe when police broke into his hotel room after he missed check-out.

Resources are also an issue.

"My sense of the delay is likely in getting a judge. We know that there are lots of judicial positions open that the government hasn't filled," King said.

Alberta Justice sent a statement saying, "Investments include funding to hire more justices and court staff to address increasing workloads, and modernizing court technology and processes in the justice system to improve efficiency."

'No one's held accountable'

While more than 100 families remain in limbo awaiting inquiries, there are concerns about the next step as well.

"The trouble with the public inquiries is that there's recommendations but no one's held accountable," Pat Heffernan said.

Engel said the province has added a system where agencies at the centre of inquiries have to report on whether they have made the recommendations but he wonders about the enforcement.

"Sometimes, I get a case that has the same problem -- that there has been recommendations in the past and they didn't do it. So what real accountability is there? I don't know. But I do know the same sort of problems keep on happening."

Since the public fatality inquiries do not lay blame, the Heffernans also wonder why the inquiries have to wait to proceed, which delays recommendations that could potentially prevent similar deaths.

"The intent is not to lay blame, but to improve," Irene Heffernan said.

Engel agrees.

"If finding fault is not an issue, then why can't you have it? You can," he said.

He says a huge flaw in the current system is a lack of balance -- the deaths investigated involve Alberta agencies, which are represented by lawyers funded by taxpayer dollars.

"They will do everything they can to protect their clients, make it so that the fatality inquiry, in my view, is not meaningful, try to neuter the fatality inquiry, and it's just not fair," Engel said.

He says families are not represented at the inquiries but if they were, it could improve the outcomes.

"All that the province has to do is say families have lawyers, too, and we'll pay for it. That would make a huge improvement," Engel said.

"The quality of the recommendations to come out of the fatality inquiry would be vastly improved if they just took that one simple step."

Right now, the schedule only goes up to September but Alberta has 22 public fatality inquiries scheduled to take place in 2024. Top Stories

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