Alberta legal aid lawyers threaten job action over ‘perpetual funding neglect’
Alberta lawyers who represent low income clients are threatening to walk off the job over what they call “perpetual funding neglect” of Legal Aid Alberta.
On Saturday, three organizations representing criminal defense lawyers across Alberta issued an ultimatum to Justice Minister Tyler Shandro, months after Crown prosecutors made similar demands for additional funding
“The most minimal provision of legal aid services in Alberta is at a breaking point,” states the news release. “While we are prepared to collaborate with other stakeholders to solve this crisis, our cooperation is contingent upon a meaningful commitment by the government to adequate fund Legal Aid Alberta now.
“To ensure the government understands the immediacy of this crisis and the importance of this funding, our organizations are taking steps towards job action.”
The release is signed by the Edmonton-based Criminal Trial Lawyers’ Association (CTLA), Calgary’s Criminal Defense Lawyers’ Association and the Southern Alberta Defense Lawyers’ Association.
Unlike the public defender system in the United States, defense lawyers in Alberta are not employed directly by the government. Rather, they are paid to represent low-income clients through Legal Aid Alberta, an arm’s length organization that receives funding from the federal and provincial governments, as well as from interest earned on their trust accounts.
In July, the three lawyers’ associations sent Shandro letters asking for more funding for the legal aid system, which they say pays about 40 per cent less than legal aid in other provinces.
They are also asking the government to revamp the financial eligibility guidelines for legal aid. CTLA president Danielle Boisvert said that in some cases, people on AISH and those making as little as $25,000 a year do not qualify for the program.
“The government must take immediate action regarding the (Legal Aid Alberta) budget,” Boisvert said in her letter to Shandro, noting the government reported a $3.9 billion surplus last fiscal year. “The need is urgent. The time is now. The money is in the coffers.”
The lawyers’ groups added that without more funding, defense lawyers will continue to leave for other provinces or the Crown’s office, hurting the constitutional rights of low-income Albertans and creating a less efficient system.
“The quality of legal services will deteriorate, and the risk of wrongful convictions will grow,” they wrote. “Which means more appeals, more re-trials, more victims returning to court, more waste of precious court time, and more Jordan stays of serious prosecutions.”
The three associations said they did not hear back from Shandro by their July 29 deadline, and that they will meet Wednesday about withdrawing their services from Legal Aid Alberta.
Boisvert said defense lawyers operate as small businesses, and the associations, which are not unions, cannot compel their members to refuse legal aid work.
However, “all of us understand that something needs to be done now, and lawyers are much more willing to act collectively now than ever before,” she said. “I think … we’re going to have almost unanimous support for whatever we decide to do going forward, but unfortunately I can’t say we represent 100 per cent of the defense lawyers on the legal aid roster.”
The threat of job action comes four months after Crown prosecutors made similar demands of the government, saying they were among the lowest paid in the country and that experienced lawyers were leaving as a result.
The government also recently added funding for four additional judges on the Alberta provincial court. In an interview, Boisvert compared the justice system to a stool, with the judges, the Crown and the defense as each of its three legs.
“The government has infused a lot of money into the judiciary,” she said. “They’ve now infused a lot of money into the prosecution services. So two of those legs have been propped up, and the other one has been left shortchanged.”
She said funding for legal aid is an access to justice issue.
“When the public cannot access justice to begin with, and the justice they can access is subpar because of an underfunded legal aid system, then the justice they do get is not going to be quality justice.”
In an email, Shandro press secretary Joseph Dow said “contrary to what has been suggested,” the government “is willing to consider” increasing the legal aid operating budget and expanding eligibility for the program.
He said a review of the system is underway to make the billing and fee system less cumbersome. Any changes to Alberta’s contribution to Legal Aid Alberta “must be done after the current review is complete and must be done through the development of the 2023 budget,” Dow said.