Legal aid underfunding is adding to an already backlogged court system, says the president of Red Deer’s Criminal Defence Lawyers’ Association.
“There is widespread concern among lawyers who accept legal aid files that there is chronic underfunding of legal aid, the effect (it is having) on their clientele and the system in general,” said Red Deer defence lawyer Jason Snider.
“There is a lot of clog in the system right now of matters which could move much faster and with fewer court appearances if counsel was appointed to assist people.”
Underfunding of legal aid was in the spotlight this week when the president of Calgary’s defence lawyers’ association said lawyers may have to take job action to get the provincial government’s attention.
Ian Savage said lawyers in Ontario refused to take Legal Aid cases in a battle over funding there that ended with improved funding.
In a strongly worded letter sent last month to Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley, Savage calls on the province “to make up for the years of neglect” by boosting legal aid funding by 60 per cent over four years, starting with an immediate boost this year of 40 per cent.
The province has earmarked $90 million for legal aid, well short of the $150 million required, he says.
Ganley was asked about legal aid funding at the Legislature this week and said the government is working on it.
“We have increased the legal aid budget significantly to try to deal with some historic underfunding issues,” she said. “We’re going to continue working forward with people.”
Since 2015, the government has increased legal aid funding by almost 40 per cent, raised the minimum income level to be eligible for aid, and increased the amount paid to legal aid lawyers, says Justice department spokesperson Scott Sehested.
The province is negotiating a new agreement with Legal Aid Alberta and the Law Society of Alberta. It will include long-term funding for duty counsel at first-appearance bail hearings.
That issue came about after a court ruling that replaced police with Crown prosecutors at those bail hearings.
Snider said the province is not solely responsible for legal aid underfunding. The federal government has frozen its funding and contributions from the Alberta Law Foundation have shrunk because the fund that was used to support legal aid is not making as much money.
“The provincial government is holding the bag, but the people who are really suffering from it are the people who just can’t get lawyers and they’re clogging up the court system,” said Snider.
Many of those who wind up in the courts were raised in foster care and do not have the family connections to approach for financial help to hire a lawyer.
As well, many facing criminal charges have mental health and addictions issues, which affect their ability to hold down a job, let alone pay for legal help.
Legal Aid relies on the charity of defence lawyers, who typically only get paid 25 to 30 per cent of their usual rate for representing clients, he said.
“Essentially, Legal Aid has struck a significant bargain with lawyers.”