On Wednesday, the Alberta government announced it was increasing the hourly rate paid to legal aid lawyers by 8.2 per cent, increasing it to $100 per hour from $92.40. Jason Snider, president of the Red Deer Criminal Defence Lawyers Association, says that’s simply not enough. (Advocate file photo)

On Wednesday, the Alberta government announced it was increasing the hourly rate paid to legal aid lawyers by 8.2 per cent, increasing it to $100 per hour from $92.40. Jason Snider, president of the Red Deer Criminal Defence Lawyers Association, says that’s simply not enough. (Advocate file photo)

New legal aid funding falls short, says lawyers

Defence lawyers who handle legal aid work are taking job action

The Alberta government’s recent announcement of an eight per cent increase in rates paid to lawyers for legal aid work falls far short of what is needed, say lawyer associations.

Red Deer lawyer Jason Snider said local lawyers who handle legal aid work remain united and consider the province’s response “wholly inadequate.”

In a protest against under-funding, four associations representing Alberta defence lawyers who handle legal aid work launched escalating job action on Aug. 6, when they began refusing some types of legal aid work.

Frustrated by the lack of progress, they voted to stop taking on any new legal aid clients as of Sept. 26.

On Wednesday, the Alberta government announced it was increasing the hourly rate paid to legal aid lawyers by 8.2 per cent, increasing it to $100 per hour from $92.40.

The financial threshold used to determine an accused’s eligibility to get legal aid help was also raised by 8.2 per cent, as was the block billing amount, a flat rate covering a set of common legal services required in court cases.

The money is coming from additional federal funding that recently became available, says the province.

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Lawyers take job action to protest legal aid funding shortfalls

Snider, who is president of the Red Deer Criminal Defence Lawyers Association, said the new money only applies to legal aid work taken on as of Oct. 6 and does not apply to legal aid work that was already underway when lawyers withdrew their services.

In a response to the government’s announcement, the lawyer associations said it “marks a modicum of progress,” while noting a 20 per cent increase would be needed just to adjust for inflation since the rates were last set in 2015.

Legal aid lawyers in B.C. are paid $113 to 124.73 an hour depending on experience and Ontario lawyers are paid $109.14 to $136.43. Alberta pays the same rate to all lawyers, regardless of experience.

The increase to financial eligibility only brings it up to the level it was in 2010, when the government under Premier Ed Stelmach slashed the threshold by 30 per cent. A family of four with an income higher than $41,270 is not eligible for legal aid help after the changes.

Alberta Justice’s move still falls far short of a thorough review of legal aid rates promised when a governance agreement between lawyers and government was signed 3 1/2 years ago, he said.

There is some optimism that there could be movement on that front after the province said this week it had issued a request for proposals for a comprehensive review of legal aid rates and financial eligibility guidelines to be used in drawing up the 2023-24 provincial budget.

“But we’ve heard these promises before,” said Snider.

About 1,200 lawyers on the legal aid roster in Alberta. In central Alberta, only about 15 do that kind of work. There are also three lawyers who work directly for the Legal Aid Society in Red Deer and are not part of the work action.

Lawyers across the province are expected to vote next Wednesday on whether to continue some sort of work action in light of the recent funding announcement.

NDP justice critic Irfan Sabir said in a statement that the announcement is a “stop-gap measure made in the final hours of Premier Kenney’s government that still falls short of what legal aid lawyers are asking for.

“I urge the next premier to negotiate in good faith to pay arrears owed to legal aid under the 2018 agreement, and permanently revise tariffs and eligibility guidelines to be comparable to other major provinces.”



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