Amid an ongoing dispute with the province’s defence lawyers over legal aid funding and eligibility guidelines, the Alberta government announced Wednesday it is boosting the hourly tariff rate for those who take on legal aid files.
In a news release, the government said it is increasing the hourly tariff rate of $92.40 for lawyers with 10 years or more of experience to $100 per hour for the rest of the fiscal year, “until permanent changes can be determined.”
Late last month, defence lawyers escalated job action in their ongoing fight for changes by refusing to take on any new legal aid files. Those lawyers said the system has suffered from more than a decade of underfunding.
Justice Minister Tyler Shandro said a comprehensive review of the legal aid system in Alberta is expected to be delivered to the government later this month, after which the province will take steps to modernize the system and ensure processes, legal practices and remuneration are up to date.
The government said the modernization effort will inform funding decisions for the 2023-2024 budget.
“With the modernization project on track to conclude this month and increased funding available through the federal government, there is now an opportunity to increase legal aid funding earlier than anticipated,” Shandro said. “Our commitment to review all aspects of legal aid funding remains in place.
“This in-year funding increase is a first step and we look forward to the results of the modernization project and the results of the comprehensive review.”
Danielle Boisvert, the president of the Criminal Trial Lawyers’ Association, told Global News on Wednesday afternoon that she and her members were still processing the development as they were only just informed of the raise.
However, she said the raise certainly is not enough in the long term.
“We did request and would have liked to have seen a minimum 20 per cent increase just to keep pace with inflation,” Boisvert said. “We were advised this is an interim measure until April 1, the new budget year. So there should be further increases — significant increases — between now and then.”
According to the government, Alberta currently ranks sixth among Canadian provinces for its hourly tariff rate and the increase raises the ranking to fourth.
“Even with this small bump up, we’re still 10 per cent below the entry-level Ontario rate for their entry-level lawyers — senior lawyers are about 36 per cent higher than this new $100 per hour rate,” Boisvert said.
She added that members will likely vote next week on whether the government’s announcement is enough to have them end their job action.
Boisvert noted that the funding for the interim pay increase is primarily from the federal government.
“The province has not really contributed anything further at this point to the solution to the problem, from a monetary perspective,” she said, adding that there is a lack of clarity on where things will go next since Alberta’s government could be quite different in the near future depending on who will be the new premier.