‘Not an empty threat:’ Alberta defence lawyers warn of strike in legal aid fight

‘Not an empty threat:’ defence lawyers warn of strike in legal aid fight

CALGARY — The president of a defence lawyers group says strike action is possible if the Alberta government doesn’t come to the table with serious cash to fix legal aid.

“It’s not an empty threat,” Ian Savage, president of the Calgary Criminal Defence Lawyers Association, said at a news conference Tuesday.

Savage said Legal Aid Alberta needs an immediate infusion of cash so the province’s working poor are able to get a lawyer if they need one.

“Cases are being delayed more and more, and it’s just a fact that the system is underfunded throughout and it’s falling apart,” he said.

“We’re talking about poor people here.”

He said lawyers could well follow the example set by their legal-aid counterparts in Ontario five years ago who essentially went on strike until changes were made.

“It’s absolutely an option,” he said. “What happened in Ontario … was the senior lawyers collectively agreed not to take on any new cases for a period of months, including murders and all other serious matters.

“Those (clients) essentially went unrepresented for months and months while the government struggled to find them lawyers in another fashion.”

Savage said anyone making more than $19,000 a year is ineligible for legal aid in Alberta. The government’s increases to minimum wage — now at $13.60 an hour — could put some full-time workers over that threshold for assistance, he said.

“The simple math of the matter clearly demonstrates that by the government’s own numbers really poor people, in particular the working poor, are not even eligible for legal aid,” Savage said.

“It’s going in the wrong way.”

Scott Sehested, a spokesman for Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley, said the government increased funding for Legal Aid Alberta in this year’s budget.

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