The Alberta government has asked Legal Aid Alberta to halt a move that required clients to pay a fee up front.
Last Thursday, Legal Aid announced it would be asking clients to pay a deposit up front before being given a lawyer. The organization was asking for $25 to $150 .
St. Albert Duty Counsel and local defence lawyer Dave Lloyd is against the move by Legal Aid and said that it is denying people their right to justice. Lloyd said that many people would not be able to afford a fee up front.
“We are not talking about people whose money is tied up in investments or they don’t have their debit card while in custody. We are talking about people who have zero dollars. They are arrested and they go in with everything they own,” Lloyd said.
The lawyer said that the move could encourage those charged with crimes to plead guilty if they do not have the money to pay up front. An accused is given a lower sentence if they plead guilty early as compared to if they are found guilty after a trial. If an accused will not be able to come up with a fee for a lawyer and will have to represent themselves then they may be more likely to plead guilty.
Lloyd said that billing the accused later allows for access to justice. He said they will have the ability to find a job to pay the money back once they get back on their feet.
On Tuesday Minister of Justice and Solicitor General Kathleen Ganely said that the move was concerning and asked Legal Aid to halt the plan for prepayments.
“I am concerned with the recent operational decision by Legal Aid Alberta to ask for prepayments or deposits from some clients prior to receiving service,” Ganley said.
Legal Aid Alberta agreed to pause the prepayment plan and in a press release said they look forward to working with Ganley to find a solution.
“It has never been the intention of Legal Aid Alberta to deny service to people who cannot afford to contribute. As Legal Aid Alberta is a legal assistance service, and not a free service, we continue to explore with government viable options for working with those we serve in a fiscally responsible way, without denying service to those who are vulnerable or unable to contribute,” the press release said.
Along with asking for up-front payments, the agency said that it would be ramping up payments collections and said that clients could lose counsel if payment plans were not followed.
This year Legal Aid Alberta had a budget of $81.4 million.