Alberta defence lawyers are threatening job action because of legal aid funding shortfalls. (Advocate file photo)

Alberta defence lawyers fed up with legal aid funding shortfalls

Associations representing many defence lawyers said job action may be undertaken

Organizations representing many of Alberta’s defence lawyers are threatening to walk off the job to protest legal aid underfunding.

Alberta’s Legal Aid lawyers are paid nearly 40 per cent less than their counterparts in other provinces, says a joint letter from the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association, the Criminal Trial Lawyers Association and Southern Alberta Defence Lawyers’ Association.

The poor pay discourages experienced lawyers from taking legal aid cases, which will cause the quality of legal services to deteriorate and could see the number of wrongful convictions increase.

That will lead to more appeals and re-trials, requiring victims to come back to court while wasting court time and more stays of court cases because they could not handled within the time limits imposed by the Supreme Court of Canada.

“The most minimal provision of legal aid services in Alberta is at a breaking point,” says the letter.

Red Deer lawyer Jason Snider said the legal aid shortcomings are already having a big impact in this jurisdiction.

The poor compensation means many defence lawyers are reluctant to take on legal aid work. Others are choosing to retire, move into the Crown prosecutors office where the pay is consistent or do other legal work. Only about six Red Deer lawyers are willing to do legal aid work. In the early 2000s, there were more than 10 local lawyers doing that kind of work.

“That’s a direct result of legal aid funding,” said Snider, who is president of the Red Deer Criminal Defence Lawyers Association. “Underfunding has had a very real, direct effect in Red Deer.”

When local lawyers aren’t available, legal aid work gets farmed out to lawyers in Calgary or Edmonton and other jurisdictions.

“It’s a phenomena I’ve never really seen before, this exodus of work out of town because of the exodus of lawyers.”

Not having a local lawyer makes it much harder for clients to meet with their representatives. The lawyers getting the legal aid work often tend to be junior lawyers with little experience and who have not developed the relationships with local Crown prosecutors to help move cases through the courts efficiently.

That means there are a lot more adjournments and longer delays in getting cases to trial.

“It really affects the quality of justice for the entire system,” he said.

Snider said he will be speaking with local lawyers and the other associations to determine what their next steps should be.

Criminal Defence Lawyers Association (CDLA) president Ian Savage says in a letter that the organization “will no longer be complicit in the serial neglect of Alberta’s Legal Aid program by successive provincial governments,” adding its members cannot accept the “gross underfunding of constitutionally protected legal services.

“The status quo has placed the criminal defence bar into crisis and cannot be allowed to continue.”

Savage says the CDLA will work with other organizations, including the Red Deer Criminal Defence Lawyers Association, to pursue adequate funding.

If CDLA does not hear from the government its members will consider job action, including refusing to perform legal aid work.

The Alberta government pledged $110 million for legal aid in 2021-22. However, only $70 million has been delivered, says the CDLA. Legal aid roster lawyers in Alberta have not received any increase in their rate in seven years, despite a nearly 20 per cent increase in inflation.

The Criminal Trial Lawyers Association notes that the UCP government has cut legal aid funding by 35 per cent in the last two years. The hourly rate of $92.40 for Alberta legal aid work is slightly above Saskatchewan’s $92 but below Manitoba’s $100 and about 30 per cent less than the $119.06 that B.C. lawyers get and $122.78 for Ontario lawyers.