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Job action to continue over legal aid funding after 'dismissive' meeting with province: defence lawyers

Additional funding is essential to addressing limitations in Alberta's legal aid system, said the president of the Edmonton Criminal Trial Lawyers Association
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A joint release Aug. 11, 2022, from four Alberta defence lawyers’ organizations described the government’s reaction in the meeting as mired in “smoke and mirrors.” FILE PHOTO/St. Albert Gazette

Job actions aiming for improved legal aid funding will continue, four Alberta defence lawyers’ associations announced Thursday. 

The announcement follows an Aug. 8 meeting with the Edmonton Criminal Trial Lawyers’ Association (CTLA), the Calgary Criminal Defence Lawyers’ Association, and the Southern Alberta Defence Lawyers’ Association, and the provincial government, including Justice Minister Tyler Shandro and the CEO of Legal Aid Alberta, John Panusa. 

Danielle Boisvert, president of the Edmonton Criminal Trial Lawyers Association, said Thursday the meeting had the minister’s office and Legal Aid Alberta “taking turns explaining why they couldn’t do what we were asking them to do.”

“The government simply needs to turn to Legal Aid and say, ‘We understand that the tariff is not high enough, it doesn’t fairly compensate lawyers … it doesn’t serve enough Albertans and there are too many people falling through the cracks,'” Boisvert said.  

The Thursday joint release from the four defence lawyers’ organizations described the government’s reaction in the meeting as “dismissive,” and mired in “smoke and mirrors.”

“To say the meeting was disappointing would be a gross understatement,” the statement said. “We quickly realized we were the only ones prepared to speak frankly about access to justice in Alberta.”

Boisvert said defence lawyers have been advocating for improved legal aid funding for more than a decade. 

Now, with a provincial government surplus and earlier acknowledgement from the ministry that the legal aid system needs to be overhauled and modernized — without plans to increase the budget — Boisvert said that advocacy work has become more immediate. 

“How do you bring [the legal aid system] up to speed with other provinces if you’re not willing to put in the same level of funding and pay the lawyers the same as what lawyers in Ontario and British Columbia are being paid?” Boisvert asked. 

The base rate for legal aid roster lawyers is $92.40 per hour in Alberta, while in Ontario and British Columbia the rates begin at $109.14 and $113.39, respectively.

The Aug. 11 press release asks whether Shandro, Panusa, or “any other reasonable Albertan” would find it acceptable for low-income family members or friends to not be able to access essential legal services. 

“Would it be acceptable for a sexual assault complainant to be appointed an inexperienced and overworked lawyer to protect the privacy of deeply personal information? … Would it be acceptable for an intimate partner fleeing domestic violence to be appointed a family law lawyer who is so busy that their first family court date is weeks away?” the release asked. 

The stoppages that began on Aug. 8 are now extended until Sept. 2, the Thursday announcement said. The stoppages encompass bail-only services, courtroom duty counsel services, complainant counsel services, and cross-examination of complainant services where an accused is self-represented.

“As defence lawyers, we are taking great care not to put our existing clients into positions that jeopardize their legal rights,” Boisvert said. “This type of action is really difficult to take, knowing that it even affects people in our public in a minor way.”

Joseph Dow, the press secretary for Shandro, said in an email that despite the disagreement in the Aug. 8 meeting, “Alberta’s government found the meeting to be respectful and appreciated the arguments advanced by all four associations.”

“Alberta’s government has committed to meeting with all four associations again in the near future,” Dow said in the statement. 

On Aug. 8, the Alberta Crown Attorneys' Association (ACAA), wrote a statement in response to the defence lawyers' job action, advocating for a properly resourced justice system — including fair and competitive compensation for legal aid work. 

Dallas Sopko, ACAA president, noted his association “isn’t privy to all of the intricacies” of how legal aid is funded, and therefore cannot speak directly about whether it’s properly funded right now.  

“We just want the public to understand that a properly funded legal aid system is an integral part of the justice system,” Sopko said.

System-wide problems remain: Sopko 

In the spring, Alberta prosecutors made similar asks to the provincial government for an increase in salaries to meet the level of compensation in other provinces. 

Strike action was ultimately curtailed when the provincial government agreed to increase funding, as well as to develop a framework agreement to provide long-term stability for other aspects prosecutors said require improvement. 

However, Sopko noted one of the crucial asks in that advocacy work — mental health supports — has still not been met. 

“There have been some comments … that the government has bent over backwards for prosecutors,” Sopko said. “We’re still actively advocating for the rights of prosecutors and trying to get an agreement done, but it hasn’t been fruitful thus far.”

Sopko noted the legal system as a whole in Alberta is facing system-wide issues regarding a lack of resources, and that change “doesn’t come until we’re on the verge of or actually in a crisis.”

For example, Sopko said clerks are often “run off their feet and shorthanded,” and judges also face the same issues of being under-resourced. 

“I would say that our association’s view is that a more proactive approach is needed to ensure that we’re providing safe communities for all Albertans to live in,” Sopko said. 

Should the government not provide more funding for legal aid by Sept. 2, Boisvert said the defence lawyers’ associations don’t have specific job actions in place at this time, but that a job action committee is working towards different strategies. 

“We need to balance our ethical duties to our clients with whatever action we’re going to take,” Boisvert said. 

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