'Short-term pain': Group of Alberta lawyers escalate job action over legal aid cases

·3 min read

CALGARY — Alberta criminal defence lawyers are taking another step in their dispute with the provincial government over the amount of compensation paid by Legal Aid Alberta.

Organizations representing lawyers in Edmonton, Calgary, Red Deer and southern Alberta began job action Aug. 8 by refusing to accept certain bail and duty counsel files from legal aid.

The lawyers also began refusing certificates for new cases for the most serious criminal charges, including sexual offences, firearms-related crimes and homicides.

Beginning Monday, they say all services will be withdrawn.

"We're going to stop taking all certificates. That will include some our prior job actions still allowed us to take certificates for people who are already existing clients and there will be a very, very limited set of circumstances now where our members will do that," said Kelsey Sitar, vice-president of the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association in Calgary.

"The default will be: 'We are just not taking any new work from legal aid until the problem is fixed.'"

Sitar made her comments at a rally in front of the Calgary Courts Centre on Friday that drew about 50 criminal defence lawyers.

A table with a sign reading "Save Legal Aid" offered bake goods for sale. Lawyers carried signs reading "Access 2 Justice Must be Equal." Another read: "This sign is too small to fit my outrage."

"This is drastic. I mean, what we were doing up until now is something I know has happened in Ontario before, it did not last long, frankly," Sitar said.

"I can tell you that none of us want to be out here. We all want to be in there doing our jobs."

Justice Minister Tyler Shandro has said nothing is going to be done until a review of the Legal Aid Alberta administrative system is complete, which is scheduled for next month.

He said any budget changes for legal aid wouldn't happen until next year.

Sitar said the ministry chose to undertake "an incomplete and, frankly, useless review" at a time when the governing United Conservative Party is about to go through a leadership change.

"So we have to act now and they need to respond now," she said.

Sitar said she understands the people being affected the most by the job action will be people with lower incomes who need the services to afford legal representation.

"It's short-term pain right now," she said. "It's really unfortunate, but I can tell you that most of the people I've talked to on the street who are finding themselves caught up in this understand and are grateful that we're doing it."

Alberta Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley said the problem has been growing over the last three years. She said when her party was in power, it committed to additional funding for Legal Aid, but the UCP government backtracked.

"We simply cannot be asking the Legal Aid bar to be doing what we are asking them to do at the rate that we are asking them to do it," she told reporters.

"We have the lowest funding for Legal Aid in the country. What that means is that we don't have equal access to justice. It undermines the integrity of our justice system and, overall, it undermines our ability to build a sense of community safety, community security and an overall respect for the rule of law — all of which are important to community health and economic growth.

"It sounds like a niche issue, but it's not. It actually has knock-off effects to very, very important issues that affect all of us. So, the government needs to come to the table and negotiate decently with these lawyers."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 23, 2022.

— With files from Colette Derworiz in Calgary.

Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press