In an effort to bring more attention to what they call a broken legal aid system, organizations representing criminal defence lawyers in Alberta say their members are prepared to take more job action next month.
“Defence lawyers will refuse serious legal aid files beginning Sept. 1,” reads a joint statement issued by the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association (CDLA), the Criminal Trial Lawyers Association (CTLA), the Southern Alberta Defence Lawyers’ Association (SADL), and the Red Deer Criminal Lawyers Association (RDCDLA ) on Thursday.
“As of Sept. 1, 2022, our members will begin refusing new certificates for all criminal appeals. They will also refuse new legal aid files involving the most serious criminal offences — those classified as Level 2.5 or Level 3 offences by Legal Aid Alberta. This includes most sexual offences, firearms-related offences, all homicides and dangerous offender proceedings.
“To ensure we do not prejudice our existing clients, this job action does not involve cancelling Level 2.5 or Level 3 certificates previously accepted by our members, and it should not affect hearing dates that have already been scheduled.
“None of this action has been taken lightly. It comes at significant personal and financial cost to our membership.”
The groups issued the statement a week after announcing they would be extending part of their job action following a meeting with Justice Minister Tyler Shandro. At the time, they said that until Sep. 2, they would continue to refuse legal aid files requiring bail-only services, courtroom duty counsel services, complainant counsel services (pursuant to s. 276 of the Criminal Code) and cross-examination.
“This summer, the members of Alberta’s four defence lawyer associations have united in a fight for equal access to justice for all Albertans,” Thursday’s statement reads in part. “To highlight the perpetual underfunding of Legal Aid Alberta, we began withdrawing services on Aug. 8, 2022.
“These efforts have garnered national support from defence counsel and Crown prosecutors alike. As the boots-on-the-ground lawyers in courtrooms across the country know, underfunding legal aid is a national problem.”
The groups said they have told Shandro and Legal Aid Alberta CEO John Panusa that the province currently has a “unique opportunity.”
“With a budget surplus and a strong economy, the time for a comprehensive review is now,” the group said. “A real and enlightened change now to our decades-old tariff of lawyer payments, our disgraceful financial eligibility guidelines and our political habit of under-delivered funding could make Alberta a leader in delivering quality legal services to society’s most vulnerable.”
The groups said a letter from Shandro on Wednesday indicates to them that their pleas “continue to fall on deaf ears.”
An Alberta government spokesperson provided Global News with a copy of Shandro’s letter on Thursday.
“I appreciated the opportunity to hear first-hand your concerns and suggestions,” the letter reads. “While there is room for progress and we are committed to working with you to achieve improvements, I note that since 2015, Alberta’s government has increased funding to Legal Aid Alberta by 47 per cent — ensuring delivery of legal aid to a growing population through changing economic conditions, and in alignment with government priorities.”
Despite Shandro referencing that funding has increased since 2015, his United Conservative Party only formed government in 2019. Legal Aid Alberta’s 2019-20 annual report shows that funding from the province was actually cut from $104.1 million in 2019 to $91.8 million in 2020. Despite the reduced government funding, Legal Aid Alberta’s total revenues actually increased slightly between 2019 and 2020 thanks to grants provided by the Alberta Law Foundation, a non-profit organization.
“Alberta’s provision of key services such as free duty counsel for criminal and family courts to all Albertans, and presumptive legal aid eligibility for Albertans on Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped, are key aspects of our system,” Shandro’s letter reads.
“Alberta’s government has always ensured LAA has sufficient funding to meet demand for their services, and there have not been any instances of eligible Albertans not accessing services due to insufficient funding.”
Shandro acknowledged that the groups have voiced what they say is a much-needed immediate increase to the hourly legal aid tariff and financial eligibility guidelines.
“(Panusa) took this opportunity to highlight the great work that has been ongoing through LAA’s redesign and the significant service delivery improvements implemented during the pandemic,” the letter reads. “I want to reiterate the importance of completing the current modernization review that LAA is undertaking to inform comprehensive policy decisions regarding the rates.
“LAA has indicated they expect this work to be complete in October 2022.
“As discussed, any increases to the legal aid tariff or to the FEGs must be completed as part of the fall budget submission. LAA and my ministry will work together to start this comprehensive process and we invite your input into this process. As this work is completed, and there is evidence to support increasing the rate, that evidence will be used in our submissions to Treasury Board.”
Opposition justice critic Irfan Sabir issued a statement about the situation via a news release on Thursday.
“All Albertans deserve fair representation when brought before the courts. This is a cornerstone of our justice system,” he said. “The Jordan decision and the COVID-19 pandemic have put considerable pressure on our justice system, already resulting in delays.
“It’s more important than ever before that we have a properly funded and functional legal aid system to help address and alleviate such pressures.”
Sabir noted that while Alberta had an NDP government it pledged a $70-million funding increase too LAA over four years and said he has called on Shandro to honour that deal as well as to “immediately engage with impacted lawyers’ groups to come to an agreement that is fair, reasonable and comparable to other provinces.”
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