Defence lawyers in Alberta say they will stop taking any new legal aid files on Sept. 26 as an ongoing dispute with the provincial government about funding continues to escalate.
The decision to take more job action came following after a meeting on Wednesday involving defence lawyer associations in Edmonton, Calgary, Red Deer and southern Alberta.
On Sept. 2, defence lawyers stopped taking new legal aid files for serious crimes like homicide and sexual assault while also staging walkouts at courthouses in Edmonton and Calgary.
“We still have had no meaningful communication with (Justice Minister Tyler Shandro), no meaningful commitments made,” Kelsey Sitar, vice-president of the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association in Calgary, told Global News.
“We received a letter last week that essentially said the same thing, that the letters we’ve received to date have said the same political doublespeak from Minister Shandro.”
Previously, Shandro said a review of the lawyers’ arguments for increased funding is underway, and any increases would come as part of the fall budget process.
More walkouts in Edmonton, Calgary and Red Deer were planned on Friday to highlight the latest job action in a series of escalations between defence lawyers and the province.
“The default will be: ‘We are just not taking any new work from legal aid until the problem is fixed,'” Sitar said Friday at a rally in front of the Calgary Courts Centre that drew about 50 criminal defence lawyers.
A table with a sign reading “Save Legal Aid” offered bake goods for sale. Lawyers carried signs reading “Access 2 Justice Must be Equal.” Another read: “This sign is too small to fit my outrage.”
“This is drastic. I mean, what we were doing up until now is something I know has happened in Ontario before, it did not last long, frankly,” Sitar said.
“I can tell you that none of us want to be out here. We all want to be in there doing our jobs.”
Sitar said she understands the people being affected the most by the job action will be people with lower incomes who need the services to afford legal representation.
“It’s short-term pain right now,” she said. “It’s really unfortunate, but I can tell you that most of the people I’ve talked to on the street who are finding themselves caught up in this understand and are grateful that we’re doing it.”
“We wrote back to him (Shandro) and explained, ‘Well, the problem is that the review that you’re doing right now… it’s effectively useless. It’s a waste of taxpayers’ money because you’re being told to renovate the kitchen without a budget for new appliances,'” Sitar told Global News Thursday.
“The response we received again from Minister Shandro last week essentially said the same thing, that there is not going to be anything changed until 2023 with the 2023 budget.”
Shandro told the lawyers associations that it would be an evidence-based decision.
In a statement issued to Global News on Thursday night, Shandro said “increases to the legal aid tariff, which is the rate that criminal defence lawyers are paid for legal aid work, will be considered as part of the 2023 Budget.
“Legal Aid Alberta and officials in (Alberta) Justice have begun this work, and if there is evidence to support increasing the rate paid to criminal defence lawyers, it will be included in the 2023 Budget submission,” the statement reads.
Shandro’s statement also noted that Legal Aid Alberta CEO John Panusa “has publicly stated that they have all required funding necessary to ensure uninterrupted access to justice.”
In an op-ed published by Postmedia earlier this month, Panusa also said he has been “relentless in advocating for strategic financial investments into legal aid so more people can access our services.”
“Our message back to the minister is really the same: you can’t get the evidence you need out of the review you’re doing right now because you’re not considering the two essential, central concepts that are necessary to conduct a meaningful review,” Sitar said.
She noted a budget increase for Legal Aid Alberta was approved by the then-NDP government in 2018, a recognition of the chronic underfunding of the legal aid system. That planned funding increase was later halted by the UCP, which won the 2019 election.
“We are now to a point where we’re essentially $80 million in the hole compared to what legal aid should have been receiving from provincial government funding,” Sitar said.
One common scenario Sitar said she and her colleagues hear about is the threshold at which Albertans are eligible for legal aid.
“If a family of four has a household income of more than roughly $38,000, they will be told that they make enough money to afford to pay a lawyer privately,” she said.
“We reject more people for their finances than the province of Ontario. It’s shocking.”
Sitar said she recognizes that the legal aid system, and the people seeking help navigating it, are in crisis.
“By taking the step that we’re taking now, what we’re effectively doing is taking those crutches away from the system,” she said. “We’re not going to prop it up anymore.
“What that will do is show, we hope, this government — in no uncertain terms — just how serious the situation is.”
Alberta Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley said the problem has been growing over the last three years. She said when her party was in power, it committed to additional funding for Legal Aid, but the UCP government backtracked.
“We simply cannot be asking the Legal Aid bar to be doing what we are asking them to do at the rate that we are asking them to do it,” she told reporters.
“We have the lowest funding for Legal Aid in the country. What that means is that we don’t have equal access to justice. It undermines the integrity of our justice system and, overall, it undermines our ability to build a sense of community safety, community security and an overall respect for the rule of law — all of which are important to community health and economic growth.
“It sounds like a niche issue, but it’s not. It actually has knock-off effects to very, very important issues that affect all of us. So, the government needs to come to the table and negotiate decently with these lawyers.”
— With files from The Canadian Press