August 28, 2014 2:51 pm

Legal-aid lawyers take action over funding

Law Courts in downtown Edmonton, July 2014

Emily Mertz, Global News

CALGARY – Alberta’s legal-aid lawyers are threatening to clog the courts with applications from people denied coverage to draw attention to what the lawyers say is a severely underfunded system.

Ian Savage, president of the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association in Calgary, says the government has raised the bar so high that people living on income support or with major disabilities can’t get a legal-aid lawyer.

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“This is what the government is now forcing us to do — bring applications on behalf of individual clients in court to direct the government to give them coverage for legal aid or a defence lawyer,” Savage said Thursday.

“They’re going to have to pay in some fashion or another for these representations like they would have anyway under the legal-aid system before.”

The province raised legal-aid eligibility thresholds by about 30 per cent in 2010.

Last month, Legal Aid Alberta closed six regional offices and laid off staff in Calgary, Whitecourt and Lethbridge. Lawyers threatened job action to try to pressure the government to provide an additional $8 million a year to fund legal aid.

Justice Minister Jonathan Denis has rejected calls for increased funding and has instead asked the federal government to provide more money to Alberta. He has said he is willing to look at what can be done in next year’s budget for legal aid.

Earlier this month, Alberta’s assistant chief Judge Larry Anderson indicated he would stay charges in three criminal assault cases, unless legal aid provided lawyers to the defendants. Anderson pointed out the three accused were on social assistance and living below the poverty line, but their income was still too high for legal help.

“Is that what Albertans want? We think not,” Savage said.

“They’ve raised the criteria to an artificial level such that people on (Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped), people with brain injuries, people with ongoing mental health issues, cannot actually get a lawyer. It’s ridiculous.”

The lawyers say they have created a website, Missingadvocate.org, to ensure Albertans do not fall victim to unfair trials or miscarriages of justice.

Alberta Justice arranged legal-aid funding for the three defendants referenced by Anderson days before his deadline.

Follow @BillGraveland on Twitter

© The Canadian Press, 2014

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