Central Alberta defence lawyers who handle legal aid files are stepping up their job action to protest underfunding along with their colleagues around the province.
The Red Deer Criminal Defence Lawyers Association has joined three other lawyers associations in the effort to pressure the province to provide more funding for Legal Aid Alberta.
Lawyers began withdrawing some services on Aug. 8 and urged the government to increase funding.
However, the associations said they received a letter from Justice Minister Tyler Shandro on Wednesday that “made one thing clear: our pleas continue to fall on deaf ears.”
Shandro has asked lawyers to wait until the 2023 budget review process for detailed legal aid discussions.
A province-wide meeting was held with defence lawyers on Wednesday evening and an “overwhelmingly supported” motion was passed to escalate job action.
On Sept. 1, defence lawyers will begin refusing all files involving criminal appeals. They will also refuse any new legal aid files involving the most serious offences, including sexual offences, many firearm-related offences, and all homicides and dangerous offender proceedings.
The job action will not apply to existing clients and files already accepted by lawyers. No scheduled hearing dates are expected to be affected.
Lawyers previously stopped providing some bail, duty counsel and complainant counsel services, as well as providing cross-examination in cases where an accused represents themselves.
“None of this action has been taken lightly,” says a news release from the associations, including the Calgary’s Criminal Defence Lawyers Association, Edmonton’s Criminal Trial Lawyers Association and the Southern Alberta Defence Lawyers’ Association.
“It comes at significant personal and financial cost to our membership,” said the associations noting their members are, like many small business owners, still try to recover from the pandemic.
“But the situation is infinitely more dire for Alberta’s most vulnerable. To continue to prop up a broken legal aid system is to deny those Albertans the legal representation they need and deserve.”
NDP justice critic Irfan Sabir said in a news conference on Thursday he had sent a letter to Shandro to honour a 2018 agreement the NDP had made with defence lawyers to increase legal aid funding. The incoming UCP government dropped the plan.
He also urged the government to come up with an agreement that was “fair, reasonable and comparable with other provinces.”
Sabir said he was concerned the job action would lead to more court delays and deny the right to be properly represented.
In October 2018, Alberta’s NDP government signed an agreement with Legal Aid Alberta that increased funding by $70 million over four years. This resulted in an immediate increase of $14 millions in the first year, for a total budget of $104 million.
The UCP government tore up the agreement in 2019, he said. Instead of receiving a planned $110.4 million budget, the legal aid budget has been cut to just $94.3 million in 2021.
“Today, the UCP Legal Aid budget is almost $20 million less than what it should be,” said Sabir.