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Defence lawyers begin work stoppages to protest ‘perpetual underfunding’ of Legal Aid Alberta

A woman wears a mask as she enters the Calgary Courts Centre during COVID-19 restrictions in Calgary, Monday, May 17, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Criminal Defence Lawyers in Alberta have started job action to demand a provincial government response to what they call its “perpetual underfunding of Legal Aid Alberta.”

Between Aug. 8 and 19, members of the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association (Calgary) (CDLA), the Criminal Trial
Lawyers Association (Edmonton) (CTLA) and the Southern Alberta Defence Lawyers’ Association (SADL) will not accept any legal aid files that require:

  • bail only services
  • courtroom duty counsel services
  • complainant counsel services (pursuant to s. 276 of the Criminal Code)
  • cross-examination of complainant services (in cases where an accused is otherwise self represented).

Danielle Boisvert, a criminal defence lawyer in Edmonton and the president of the Criminal Trial Lawyers’ Association, said that means lawyers started refusing duty counsel certificates (per-service contracts) from Legal Aid this week.

Boisvert said Tuesday that she estimates between 450 and 600 lawyers are taking part in the job action — about half of Legal Aid Alberta’s overall roster.

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Read more: Legal aid lawyers step up job action in Alberta

Boisvert added that a fourth group has also joined the cause: the Red Deer Defence Lawyers Association.

Effective Aug. 4, the lawyers withdrew their representatives from the Legal Aid Tariff Modernization Committee.

All three groups are asking Justice Minister Tyler Shandro to consider increasing Legal Aid’s budget and reviewing the current financial eligibility guidelines for applications.

Read more: Legal aid lawyers reach breaking point, request more funding from province

A meeting with the province on Monday was “disappointing,” Boisvert said.

“As someone who’s never gone to one of these political meetings, it was both enlightening and frustrating,” she said Tuesday morning.

She said the two parties were at an “impasse” — there was no recognition from the province of the need for immediate funding, nor were any solutions presented.

“There was only discussions of why there could not be solutions,” Boisvert said.

There was a commitment to review Legal Aid funding and eligibility in the 2023 budget, she said.

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“They heard our concerns and they did give us a lot of their time yesterday, which we appreciated.”

Plans were made to meet again in the next few weeks, Boisvert said.

Click to play video: 'Ask a lawyer: Navigating the court system for the first time'
Ask a lawyer: Navigating the court system for the first time

Meanwhile, the four lawyer groups will reconvene Wednesday evening to update members and discuss potential future steps. She said it’s possible, if members desire, the current job action could last beyond Aug. 19 or additional steps could be taken.

“If the government’s neglect of Legal Aid Alberta continues, our members will withdraw all duty counsel services provided to the Justice of the Peace Bail Office between Sept. 1-15,” the groups said in an Aug. 3 news release.

“Our members have been clear: if Minister Shandro persists in his failure to ensure equal access to justice for all Albertans, further services will be withdrawn.”

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Global News has reached out to Legal Aid Alberta. This article will be updated when a response is received.

In a news release shared on its website, Legal Aid Alberta explained Albertans can continue to access legal aid support in provincial courts but there may be some delays.

“We’re making efforts to ensure a duty counsel lawyer will be available either in person or virtually at all courthouses.

“We are committed to taking all reasonable steps to minimize service disruptions and to prioritize those who are in the most disadvantaged situations.”

Read more: A ‘broken’ system: Canadians can’t afford lawyers but don’t qualify for legal aid

The organization said roster lawyers who do legal aid are not employees of Legal Aid Alberta; but rather contracted by LAA “to provide legal advice and representation services in the areas of criminal and family law. The three criminal defence organizations that voted in favour of withdrawing duty counsel services do not represent all roster lawyers.

“Roster lawyers are integral to Legal Aid Alberta. While LAA is unable to change the rate of pay for roster lawyers, we are included in the discussions with them. We are hopeful a solution can be reached soon. We will continue to press forward with modernizing the tariff structure and remain committed to delivering a proposal to the ministry by budget time in October.”

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Click to play video: 'Ask a Lawyer: Duty Counsel Day and the importance of the role'
Ask a Lawyer: Duty Counsel Day and the importance of the role

A spokesperson for Alberta Justice told Global News on Aug. 5 that a review of Alberta’s Legal Aid program is underway “to address administrative efficiencies for billing, block fees, and other simplifications of the tariff system.”

Joseph Dow said Alberta is willing to consider increasing Legal Aid’s operating budget and eligibility guidelines but “that work must be done after the current review is complete and must be done through the development of the 2023 budget.”

Alberta Justice said: “publicly funded and affordable legal services are critical to ensuring that every Albertan has fair and equitable access to the legal system. We appreciate the work that all criminal lawyers undertake on the behalf of Albertans and their advocacy to increase funding for Alberta’s Legal Aid program.”

On Aug. 8, Dow said work is already underway “to modernize the legal aid tariff in our province.

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“The government will be able to explore potential changes to tariff rates and the current financial eligibility guidelines as part of the development of the 2023 budget.”

Read more: Alberta’s Crown prosecutors consider walking off the job

The justice department says Alberta ranks sixth provincially for the hourly tariff rate for roster lawyers with 10 years experience ($92.40/hour).

“Throughout this process, Alberta’s government will continue to engage our justice partners, including these organizations, to ensure we continue to prioritize the accessibility and long-term sustainability of legal aid in our province.”

According to Alberta Justice, the province has increased funding to Legal Aid Alberta by 47 per cent since 2015.

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