EDMONTON – If Alberta wants robo-justice to work, the UCP must hire more human hands, says the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE), which represents roughly 577 judicial court clerks, who are keeping the lights on in provincial courtrooms while more judges, lawyers and litigants move online in response to pandemic measures.
“Sure, the e-court has lightened the clerks’ paper files, but overall, their workload is growing,” explains AUPE Vice-President Bobby-Joe Borodey.
She warns that staff were buckling under pressure before COVID, “so this uptick in work can only mean the courts are really going into overdrive now. Alberta needs to hire more judicial clerks and give them full-time, permanent employment because the digital system is here to stay.”
As early as 2019, the UCP started preparing to digitize Alberta’s courts. COVID pushed fast-forward on the plan, forcing courtrooms to adopt new technologies at an unprecedented rate. Tools include teleconference meetings, virtual video hearings and a new e-filing system. Many front-line workers feared the UCP’s “Justice Digital” project would automate them out of work, but this trial run of the computer-centric model has only proven that the justice system can’t operate without clerks keeping it running smoothly.
“The evidence is in: clerks are as indispensable to the digital bench as they were to the brick-and-mortar courthouse,” says Borodey. “Judges might be postponing hearings, but our members are doing more than ever – jump-starting proceedings, maintaining court records and more.”
In the last couple of weeks, multiple clerks reported spikes in their workloads, which AUPE fears could mean more burnout. In 2018, the clerks filed 35 joint workload-related grievances, saying they were suffering chronic stress and exhaustion. Now their health and wellness defenses are nearing depletion as they battle COVID on top of untenable work demands.
Clerks at the Court of Queen’s Bench even asked the boss if they could adopt a rotation schedule to limit the number of them working in the provincial buildings at a single time. The UCP has completely ignored their concerns.
“Once again this government proves it can’t take care of its own staff, never mind a whole province,” says Borodey. “Our members take pride in their work, and clerks recognize that their specialized role exempts them from working remotely. All they’re seeking is proper protections, so they can come to work without risking death and burnout – is that too much to ask? Yes, the NDP plagued the justice system, causing much of the court backlog problem we’re dealing with today, but now we have a real virus exacerbating the crisis, and Kenney can actually do something about it – so where is he?”