New concerns raised over right to a fair trial for low-income Albertans

WATCH ABOVE: Is the right to a fair trial for low-income Albertans in jeopardy? Quinn Ohler reports.

EDMONTON – Days after a judge made a precedent-setting decision to ensure Albertans have access to a fair trial, a controversial move is raising new concerns.

It comes after Alberta Justice says it will provide funding for Legal Aid clients on a “case-by-case basis.”

“Previously there has been no involvement by Justice with respect to deciding whose defence would be funded and whose wouldn’t be funded. That’s a very serious step as far as we’re concerned,” said Jan Archbold of Legal Aid Alberta.

Archbold explained that it is critical for Legal Aid Alberta to operate independently from the government, and that this move erodes its defence capacity.

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Legal Aid Alberta is in place to help those who make less than $16,000 a year. But with funding cuts, more applications are being denied and people are turning to judges for court orders — which is what happened last week.

READ MORE: Inadequate funding for legal aid puts fair trials in jeopardy, experts warn

A judge threatened to stay criminal charges against three Albertans unless the government paid for their defence.

The defendants all receive income from the government’s Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped program, but did not qualify for legal aid. They claimed their right to a fair trial would be infringed if the government did not fund their defence against the serious and complex charges they face.

“My understanding is that two of these have had lawyers appointed, and we’re still waiting to appoint one but we have received orders for all three,” Archbold said on Tuesday.

The Justice and Solicitor General’s office released a statement, saying it would fund the three cases in addition to the organization’s 2014-15 budget. And would deal with “any future similar orders on a case-by-case basis.”

Money for additional cases needs to come from somewhere. But Legal Aid questions whether a “case-by-case basis” where the government is in charge will ensure all Albertans receive a fair trial.

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READ MORE: ‘Inadequate funding’ leads to 2nd resignation at Legal Aid Alberta in 3 months

“Basically the province is providing the prosecution and according to their statement, they’re now going to be determining whose defence they will and will not fund,” said Archbold.

“So that brings in some serious questions over how that will erode the defence, and also how that erodes Legal Aid Alberta’s independence.”

With files from Quinn Ohler, Global News

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