Defence lawyers who represent Albertans that wouldn’t normally be able to pay for their services staged a walkout in front of courthouses in Calgary and Edmonton on Friday morning.
The defence attorneys are also refusing to take new cases for serious criminal charges, like sex crimes, firearms-related offences and homicides.
The job action is the latest in a series of escalations between criminal defence lawyers and the Alberta government.
And following a controversial newspaper editorial by Legal Aid Alberta CEO John Panusa that was published Thursday, the quartet of criminal lawyers associations with hundreds of members are calling for him to resign.
In the op-ed, Panusa appeared to try to calm concerns and explained what services Legal Aid Alberta provides via their 300 staff lawyers and 1,200 private practice-contracted lawyers.
He said the province provides all of its funding and claimed LAA had been “pushed into the news” by the recent job action of those contracted lawyers.
“To date, LAA has received sufficient funds to support all of our services and provide legal counsel for everyone who qualifies,” Panusa wrote, saying LAA has been able to “weather” the job action.
On its website, LAA outlined tactics it is using to cover for the withdrawn services from the contracted lawyers, including virtual court appearances by their staff lawyers, increased road trips to rural courts, and taking on extra files.
It wasn’t what lawyers wanted to hear.
“I thought maybe he would explain why. Legal Aid Alberta continues to suggest everything is fine because when our membership halts, the system grinds to a halt,” Danielle Boisvert, president of the Criminal Trial Lawyers Association, said in Edmonton on Friday.
“Mr. Panusa, if you aren’t going to fight for the most vulnerable Albertans, then what Albertans deserve is your resignation.”
In a written statement, Solicitor General and Justice Minister Tyler Shandro said legal aid and officials in his ministry have begun the work, “and if there is evidence to support increasing the rate paid to defence lawyers, we will submit that request to the Treasury Board.”
Shandro repeated previous statements on the matter, saying any increases to defence lawyers’ pay would come as a part of the fall budget process.
Kelsey Sitar, vice president of the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association in Calgary, said the relatively low pay for her and her colleagues has been a problem more than a decade in the making, but was made worse in the past three years.
She said the 2018 funding agreement between the province, Legal Aid Alberta and the Law Society of Alberta was not honoured when the UCP came to power.
“We are now below the numbers that we were receiving before any of those commitments were made by the NDP,” Sitar told reporters in Calgary.
“What this current system does is it doesn’t even encourage — it forces lawyers to try and run a volume practice so that they can turn enough files through their office to try and pay the bills.
“Of course, that’s a huge disservice to Albertans who deserve a lawyer who has the time to properly prepare and conduct their case appropriately.”
Sitar warned the low compensation levels are not attracting the next generation of lawyers to take up legal aid cases, noting rates are “substantially lower” than what anyone would expect to find in the private market.
“Who is going to be here for Albertans who end up before the courts 10 years from now? We don’t know who that is right now, unless the government does what they need to do, what they committed to do.”
Sitar said Alberta legal aid lawyers are paid about half of what their colleagues in other provinces are paid, noting the entire system is underfunded.
“It makes sense that nobody could pay their overhead in their mortgage when that’s all you’re making.”
John Hooker, a Calgary criminal lawyer who has practiced for 47 years, was part of a mid-1970s pilot program for legal aid in the province. He said the treatment of legal aid in subsequent governments has changed — especially recently.
“This government treats this as almost like a thorn in their side,” Hooker told reporters Friday.
“They’ve funded the police on several different occasions in the last two years. They’ve funded the prosecution on several occasions in the last few years. And legal aid has remained the same and the work has doubled.”
Other public sector unions came out in solidarity in Calgary on Friday.
Cameron Westhead, second vice president of the United Nurses of Alberta, said Shandro’s previous antagonistic approach to doctors and nurses is on display with defence attorneys.
“We see the UCP engage in this brinksmanship where they’ll take things right to the edge and then they’ll back off. And so this is a pattern that we’ve seen,” Westhead said.
“(The province is) picking fights with some of the most important people in our justice system, and we can’t allow them to get away with that.”
For Boisvert and her fellow defence lawyers, the issue at hand is fair compensation to allow access to justice.
“Albertans deserve access to a lawyer when they cannot afford one. Albertans deserve a zealous defence provided by a strong and capable defence lawyer,” Boisvert said in front of the Edmonton Law Courts.
“Most importantly, Albertans deserve a legal aid CEO that is going to fight for them.”
— with files from Sarah Ryan and Adam MacVicar, Global News
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