Central Alberta lawyers are reducing their legal aid work as part of a province-wide protest to pressure for better funding.
Organizations representing Alberta lawyers have been calling on the province to address what they see as chronic underfunding of Legal Aid Alberta, which provides legal help for those who cannot afford a lawyer.
Representatives from three associations representing Alberta lawyers said more than 100 of their members voted last Wednesday in favour of job action through escalating work stoppages.
From Monday until Aug. 19, lawyers who handle legal aid work will refuse to act as courtroom duty counsel, as well offer certain services linked to bail, complainant counselling and cross-examination services.
If the job action does not produce any results, lawyers will withdraw all duty counsel services provided to the Justice of the Peace bail office from Sept. 1-15, say representatives for the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association, Criminal Trial Lawyers Association and Southern Alberta Defence Lawyers’ Association.
The lawyer groups said Justice Minister and Solicitor General Tyler Shandro’s has said a review of the legal aid budget and financial eligibility guidelines will happen as part of the 2023 budget but lawyers said action needs to be taken sooner.
All three groups are also withdrawing its representatives from a government committee that is supposed to be looking at the pay structure for legal aid, saying it is a waste of time if it does not involve budget and eligibility reviews.
Red Deer lawyer Jason Snider said there are about half a dozen local lawyers who handle legal aid work along with three Red Deer-based duty counsel lawyers who are employed directly by Legal Aid Alberta.
The job action is expected to have an immediate impact in the court system in central Alberta, which includes courthouses in Red Deer, Rocky Mountain House, Ponoka, Stettler and Coronation.
“It’s going to mean delays in the court system,” said Snider, who is president of the Red Deer Criminal Defence Lawyers Association.
“There are already a lot of delays in the court system. No one needs more delays.”
Snider has said previously that in the past number of years fewer lawyers are willing to take on legal aid work because the hourly compensation has not kept up with the actual cost of representing clients.
“People do legal aid work because they want to help people in trouble,” said Snider, who handles many legal aid cases.
“We’ve seen a lot of people move on,” he said, of legal aid lawyers. “Those who are left don’t want to move on. We want to try and fix the system.”
The justice minister met with representatives of the three criminal defence associations on Monday morning and reiterated that ensuring Albertans have “fair and equitable access” to the legal system is a priority.
“Work is already underway to modernize the legal aid tariff in our province. We’ve asked Legal Aid Alberta to conduct a review to address administrative efficiencies for billing, block fees, and other simplifications of the tariff system, and we expect to receive the results of the review this fall,” said Shandro in a statement.
Shandro confirmed legal aid funding and eligibility will be part of the 2023 budget process and the government will include input from those affected.
“We recognize and respect the importance of the work criminal lawyers do, and we are committed to working with our justice partners to make sure Albertans have access to publicly funded legal services in our province.”