As lawyers step up to demand funding reform for Legal Aid Alberta (LAA), the organization itself is now joining calls for more provincial funding.
On Friday, members of four defense attorney organizations along with family attorneys who handle cases of Albertans eligible for legal aid staged a strike at courthouses in Edmonton, Red Deer and Calgary.
The Criminal Defense Lawyers Association in Calgary, the Criminal Trial Lawyers Association in Edmonton, the Southern Alberta Defense Lawyers’ Association and the Red Deer Criminal Lawyers Association represent hundreds of lawyers.
LAA receives provincial funds that pay lawyers for Albertans who qualify for its services.
Lawyers have demanded an increase in fees paid to lawyers handling legal aid cases, arguing that the province has fallen behind other jurisdictions.
In August, industrial action began when lawyers began refusing some new legal aid cases.
On Wednesday, the members of the associations voted to intensify the action and will stop accepting any new legal aid files from Monday.
This means that people charged with criminal offenses ranging from theft to homicide and who cannot afford a lawyer may find themselves unable to obtain one.
Some family attorneys who do legal aid work also plan to turn down new cases.
“If the minister allows this to go on long enough, it will create a COVID-like bottleneck as no trial will be held, unrepresented people will languish in the magistrates court not knowing what to do with it. their charges,” said Danielle Boisvert, president of the Criminal Trial Lawyers’ Association in Edmonton.
She said the lawyers will continue to work with existing clients who obtain legal aid funding.
Boisvert said judges are unlikely to force a case if someone doesn’t have proper representation. She said judges are likely to end up approving more Rowbotham applications – a process by which the court can appoint a legal representative.
She said funding for attorneys appointed in this way ultimately comes from the LAA.
Lawyers are also calling for changes to legal aid eligibility, arguing that the income threshold is far too low and prevents many Albertans from accessing or affording a lawyer.
Legal Aid Alberta joins calls for increased funding
In a U-turn from its previous stance, LAA sent an email to its roster attorneys on Thursday saying it now supports a “in-principle increase” in the tariff rate paid to attorneys doing assisting work. legal.
Earlier this month, LAA President John Panusa wrote an op-ed attacking the action of lawyers on the list and saying the organization already had sufficient funds to support its services.
The op-ed angered some members of the legal community, prompting calls for Panusa to resign. But according to a copy of Thursday’s email provided to CBC, the LAA supports some calls for change.
LAA did not respond to an interview request.
The email says LAA’s board of directors met with the CEO and management team on Wednesday and ratified a “statement of principles” in response to the lawyers’ action on the list.
“There has not been an increase in the LAA rate since 2015 and any increase should be sensitive to the increase in inflation over the past seven years,” the email states.
“We believe the range of a tariff increase should, at a minimum, be guided by the tariff rate for lawyers in Ontario and British Columbia.”
The email also says LAA is concerned that eligibility for legal aid services — and what services are covered — has lagged since 2015 and lagged behind other Canadian jurisdictions.
The email notes that someone earning $20,021 a year is eligible but would lose that eligibility if their income increased by just $100 a month.
However, the statement also highlights that the LAA continues to support the Legal Aid Governance Agreement signed into law in 2019 and states that it provides a sustainable and predictable funding model.
In the study
In an emailed statement, Justice Minister Tyler Shandro said lawyer fee increases would be considered as part of the 2023 provincial budget.
Earlier, his office said a review was underway to determine whether LAA’s budget should be increased.
“Legal Aid Alberta and Department of Justice officials have begun this work, and if there is evidence to support increasing the rate paid to criminal defense attorneys, this will be included in the 2023 budget submission,” Shandro said.
Boisvert said Friday afternoon that Shandro’s statement didn’t change anything and the strike will continue as scheduled on Monday.
She said lawyers want the province to commit to immediate action.