Defence lawyers vote for job action over Legal Aid Alberta funding

Hundreds of defence lawyers from across Alberta are set to take job action in August and September after an unsatisfactory response from the province around legal aid funding.

A Thursday press release from the Criminal Defence Lawyers’ Association of Calgary, the Criminal Trial Lawyers’ Association of Edmonton, and the Southern Alberta Defence Lawyers’ Association of Lethbridge states that through “escalating work stoppages, our members will make clear to the government that Legal Aid Alberta’s budget needs to be increased now.” 

The three lawyer associations sent letters to Justice Minister Tyler Shandro in mid-July requesting a funding discussion before July 29. They released a statement the day after the deadline passed, signaling their intent to discuss next steps after receiving no response from the minister.

Ian Savage, president of the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association, said members of all three associations voted on Wednesday evening to take job action.

Savage did not provide a number for how many people voted but said “a substantial majority” from each association was in favour.

“It’s meant to to bring some short-term pain to the situation of the court system, which is already at a breaking point, in order to have the government sit up and take notice that the defence lawyers are equally valid and beneficial components of the criminal justice system.” 

From Aug. 9 to Aug. 18, association members will not accept any legal aid files that would require them to provide bail-related services, courtroom duty counsel, complainant counsel or cross-examination of complainant services. 

“It was a balancing of deciding which services that we could withdraw that would have a fairly quick immediate impact on the justice system,” said Danielle Boisvert, president of the Criminal Trial Lawyers’ Association.

“But also not put our existing clients at risk of not having our assistance for hearings that have already been booked long in advance, like trials or a sentencing hearing.” 

Danielle Boisvert is president of the Criminal Trial Lawyers Association. (Submitted by Danielle Boisvert)

The release warns that should no consensus be found on funding, job action will continue as workers “withdraw all duty counsel services provided to the Justice of the Peace Bail Office” from the 1st to 15th of September.

Joseph Dow, Shandro’s press secretary, said in a statement Thursday the province has reached out to the three organizations and that the head of Legal Aid Alberta (LAA), the deputy justice minister and Shandro would meet with them in the near future.

Earlier this week, he said the province was willing to consider increasing Legal Aid’s operating budget and changing the financial eligibility guidelines, but only after review and through the 2023 budget.

Dow said Alberta offers more legal aid services than other jurisdictions and that the government has increased funding to LAA by 47 per cent since 2015.

However, according to figures from LAA’s annual reports, provincial government funding did increase by 47 per cent between the 2015-16 fiscal year and 2018-19, but decreased for the next two years.

Tariff modernization

Effective immediately, the associations are also withdrawing their representatives from the Legal Aid Tariff Modernization Committee.

The committee is composed of defence lawyers from both inside and outside the three associations, some of whom worked with LAA. 

LAA is currently updating its tariff, which lays out how lawyers who take legal aid cases are paid.

The associations said they were disappointed to learn through LAA that the tariff rate was not in the scope of the review and modernization process.

Boivert and other association members question why Alberta crown prosecutors were able to secure a pay increase promise from the provincial government within weeks of threatening to strike this spring.

“We are not direct employees, but with an almost $4 billion surplus, asking the government of Alberta to simply deliver what it promised, or even more to get us back up to speed with inflation is a small drop in the bucket of that surplus that they have in their coffers right now.” Boivert said.

“There is absolutely no justification on any of those points for us to wait until 2023.” 

Boisvert said the associations are expected to meet with Shandro on Monday regarding next steps.

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