Alberta criminal defence lawyers ‘up the ante’ in job action

The Alberta Coat of Arms is shown at the Edmonton Law Courts building, in Edmonton on June 28, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

Criminal defence lawyers in Alberta are “upping the ante” following a meeting with Alberta’s Justice Minister and CEO of Legal Aid Alberta.

They will be extending part of their job action for two more weeks.

Until Sept. 2, members of the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association in Calgary (CDLA), the Criminal Trial Lawyers Association in Edmonton (CTLA), the Southern Alberta Defence Lawyers’ Association (SADL) and the Red Deer Criminal Defence Lawyers Association (RDCDLA) are refusing legal aid files requiring:

• bail only services;
• courtroom duty counsel services;
• complainant counsel services (pursuant to s. 276 of the Criminal Code);
• cross-examination

Hundreds of lawyers started the job action on Aug. 8, which was originally set to run until Aug. 19. A Wednesday meeting of defence lawyers decided to extend it.

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The group say they will not stop “until we ensure equal access to justice for all Albertans. This will require an immediate increase to the Legal Aid budget and a concrete commitment to fair compensation.”

In a release issued Thursday, the lawyers said a meeting earlier in the week with Tyler Shandro and John Panusa was not what they had hoped.

“We quickly realized we were the only ones prepared to speak frankly about access to justice in Alberta,” the statement said.

Click to play video: 'Ask a Lawyer: Bail hearings'
Ask a Lawyer: Bail hearings

The lawyers said the parties on the other side of the negotiating table appeared to not take their concerns seriously.

“While judges and prosecutors get the respect and compensation they deserve for professional work, defence lawyers have no such value. According to the Minister we are ‘vendors’ apparently selling widgets for pennies,” the statement said.

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A spokesperson for the minister said the two-hour meeting on Monday resulted in differences of opinion.

“Alberta’s government and the four criminal defence associations disagreed over whether or not compensation rates should be reviewed and possibly increased immediately or as part of the Budget 2023 process,” Joseph Dow wrote in an email statement to Global News.

“Despite this disagreement, Alberta’s government found the meeting to be respectful and appreciated the arguments advanced by all four associations.”

On Wednesday, Legal Aid Alberta issued an update on how that organization is “managing withdrawal” of “contracted criminal defence lawyers.”

LAA said the services they provide come from staff lawyers and roster lawyers “who do legal aid work in addition to their private practice law.

“While integral to the delivery of legal services, they are not employees of LAA and do not represent all private sector roster lawyers who do legal aid work.”

They acknowledged the roster lawyers are making their case to the province for more funding and better pay.

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

“We are at a pivotal moment when decisions about the future of legal aid are tough but necessary,” LAA wrote. “While LAA is unable to change the rate of pay for contracted roster lawyers, we are included in these discussions.

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“In the meantime, we have work to do – to support low-income Albertans facing legal issues. We are also pressing forward with our commitment to modernize the tariff structure and continually improve LAA’s administrative processes for roster lawyers.”

On Tuesday, CTLA president Danielle Boisvert told Global News more meetings are expected in the next few weeks.

–with files from Emily Mertz, Global News

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