The president of a defence lawyers group says strike action is possible if the Alberta government doesn’t come to the table with serious cash to fix legal aid.
“It’s not an empty threat,” Ian Savage, president of the Calgary Criminal Defence Lawyers Association, said at a news conference Tuesday.
Savage said Legal Aid Alberta needs an immediate infusion of cash so the province’s working poor are able to get a lawyer if they need one.
“Cases are being delayed more and more, and it’s just a fact that the system is underfunded throughout and it’s falling apart,” he said.
“We’re talking about poor people here.”
He said lawyers could well follow the example set by their legal-aid counterparts in Ontario five years ago who essentially went on strike until changes were made.
“It’s absolutely an option,” he said. “What happened in Ontario … was the senior lawyers collectively agreed not to take on any new cases for a period of months, including murders and all other serious matters.
“Those (clients) essentially went unrepresented for months and months while the government struggled to find them lawyers in another fashion.”
Savage said anyone making more than $19,000 a year is ineligible for legal aid in Alberta. The government’s increases to minimum wage — now at $13.60 an hour — could put some full-time workers over that threshold for assistance, he said.
“The simple math of the matter clearly demonstrates that by the government’s own numbers really poor people, in particular the working poor, are not even eligible for legal aid,” Savage said.
“It’s going in the wrong way.”
A spokesperson for Alberta Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Legal-aid funding in Alberta was set at $89 million this year. Ganley said in April that the government has increased funding by 40 per cent since the NDP took office in 2015.
Calgary defence lawyers began job action last month by moving files from the Case Management Office — a counter at the courthouse where justices of the peace handle logistics — to courtrooms with judges.
Savage said a significant number of cases being set for trial will slow the courts down even further.
The association wants a 65 per cent increase, or about $60 million, over four years, starting with a 40 per cent bump this year.
Savage said there have been some discussions over the last week behind the scenes, but added the government needs to negotiate in earnest.
“We’re waiting for the government to come to us and negotiate in good faith … but with dollars on the table.”
In April, the association said it was halting work members do for free to pressure the Alberta government to boost Legal Aid funding.
Savage wrote in an open letter to Ganley “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.
— With a file from Global News