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Alberta defence lawyers demanding boost to ‘neglected and degraded’ Legal Aid

FILE: The exterior of the Calgary Courts Centre in downtown Calgary.
FILE: The exterior of the Calgary Courts Centre in downtown Calgary. Global News

Members of a Calgary defence lawyers group are halting work they do for free to pressure the Alberta government to boost Legal Aid funding.

READ MORE: Alberta lawyers to stop helping poor, disabled apply for legal aid

The Criminal Defence Lawyers Association wants a 65 per cent increase over four years, starting with a 40 per cent bump this year, president Ian Savage wrote in an open letter to Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley this week.

He said he penned the letter “with a complete sense of desperation.”

“Like a shackled and starving foster child locked in a filthy closet for years, the Legal Aid program is a neglected and degraded shadow of its true potential and is robbing poor and disadvantaged Albertans of their futures,” Savage wrote.

“Your government knows exactly what is going on with its starving hidden child, but prefers to feed and care for its more attractive and socially appealing bigger brothers and sisters: the police, the prosecution service and the jails.”

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READ MORE: Alberta launches review of legal aid program struggling to keep up with demand

In the first two years of its term, the NDP government increased Legal Aid funding by more than 20 per cent, and then by another 10 per cent last fall, bringing annual funding to $89 million.

LISTEN: Ian Savage talks to 630 CHED’s Ryan Jespersen

In his letter sent Monday, Savage said $150 million is needed to run the program properly.

READ MORE: Alberta lawyers’ group applauds new legal aid money in NDP budget, says it will address ‘serious problems’ 

“Today we will begin withdrawing our unpaid services and expect the government to pay the true cost of the justice system.”

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Savage said Legal Aid has been underfunded for a long time, but his group decided it needed to take a strong stand after last month’s provincial budget kept funding levels flat.

“That’s just a complete slap in the face,” he said in an interview Tuesday.

READ MORE: Alberta murder case thrown out over trial delays; experts warn system on verge of collapse

The association has a number of actions planned this week and next to exert pressure on the government.

“We’re just going to keep adding to the list of action items until they all come to a boil,” Savage said.

The first is to start moving cases from the Case Management Office — a counter at the courthouse where justices of the peace handle logistics — to courtrooms with judges.

READ MORE: Legal Aid shutting down several of its centres in Alberta 

Defence lawyers can spend two to three hours a day dealing with the management office and that time will be more apparent if they appear before a court, Savage said.

Ganley was expected to comment later Tuesday.