Legal aid has reached a breaking point and Alberta defense lawyers are looking to the province for more funding.
Alberta’s legal aid program has been underfunded for years, said Ian Savage, the president of the Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.
“Every now and then we try and get the government’s attention to the crisis and they put some money towards it on a band-aid type solution,” he said.
According to Savage, in 2018, a four-year provincial funding agreement was put in place with Rachel Notley’s NDP government. However, that funding decreased starting in 2020.
In May of this year, the province gave Legal Aid Alberta the green light to modernize its lawyer-building framework. But lawyers are saying that if there’s no money, then there’s no sense in the project.
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“What legal aid has been given or not been given in terms of what it can work with to revamp the tariffs, as a whole, puts legal aid in a position where it can only do so much,” said Danielle Boisvert, a criminal defense lawyer in Edmonton and the president of the Criminal Trial Lawyers’ Association.
Legal Aid Alberta is trying to pay lawyers for longer trials, said Boisvert, but that means taking away money from smaller files which make up about 70 per cent of cases the defense lawyers take on.
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“If you’re getting paid less on each file, what are you going to do if you’re going to keep working in this industry as a defense lawyer for legal aid? What you need to do is take on more files.”
This approach, however, is causing burnout amongst lawyers trying to make a living.
Last month, three senior lawyers, including Savage and Boisvert, wrote letters to the minister of justice and solicitor general Tyler Shandro about the issue. They asked him to respond by July 29 or they would consider job action.
There has not yet been a response from Shanro.
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“When a person who is a lawyer cannot be bothered to even respond in writing or with a telephone call to three senior lawyers representing hundreds of other lawyers across the province who are telling him – point blank – that he needs to act… that is very sad… and a shameful state of affairs,” said Savage.
According to Mount Royal analyst Lori Williams, the situation mirrors what Alberta prosecutors have recently raised. And any job action could have implications on the already-stretched judicial system.
“If the trials are delayed because of shortages of prosecutors or defense lawyers, then they can actually exceed time limits and wind up having the cases dismissed,” Williams explained.
The issue could play a major political role, she added.
“Rural crime has been an issue for some time now. If it looks like those who are trying to defend rural Albertans or trying to support them in their needs or so forth are falling short, that could have implications not just for the leadership race but for the next election.”
The three lawyer organizations will meet on Wednesday to discuss next steps, including job action.
Global News has reached out to Tyler Shandro for comment but had not heard back at the time of publishing.
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