Criminal defense lawyers stepped up their actions Thursday in an ongoing dispute with the provincial government over the amount of compensation paid by Legal Aid Alberta.
Four organizations representing lawyers in Edmonton, Calgary, Red Deer and southern Alberta began a pressure action on August 8 by refusing to accept certain bail and duty counsel cases from aid legal.
The latest move ups the ante.
“We will also begin denying certificates for new cases for the most serious criminal charges, including sex offences, most firearms crimes and homicides,” the statement on behalf of the groups said.
“With defense attorneys no longer willing to support a broken system, our courts will be increasingly overwhelmed with unrepresented people. Cases will take longer, backlogs will increase, access to justice will decrease, and overall system costs will increase.
Legal organizations are also planning a 90-minute strike at courthouses in Edmonton and Calgary on Friday morning to protest the lack of progress in their fight for increased legal aid funding.
“Enough is enough. We have made it clear that we will no longer work most of the time for free to support a system that forces the most vulnerable Albertans to accept a bargain-based defense,” the statement read.
Justice Minister Tyler Shandro said nothing would be done until a review of Legal Aid Alberta’s administrative system was completed.
“It’s going to be done in October, so it’s not like it’s going to be that far in the future,” Shandro said. “The advice I’ve been given is that it would actually undermine that review if we were to quickly change the tariff right now.”
Submissions for the 2023 budget typically begin in October and November, he said.
“We’re not saying no to the tariff review…we can do it,” Shandro said. “It just needs to be done after the review that Legal Aid is doing right now.”
Shandro said the government was monitoring the effects of the strike
“We looked to see if there are effects and if there are ways in which someone’s access to justice is impeded,” he said.
“Legal Aid has the funding it needs to make sure people have the legal services they need.
However, criminal defense attorneys say waiting is not an option.
“We won’t wait any longer. You have heard the chorus of voices supporting the need for properly funded legal aid; we are not alone,” their statement said. “The time to fund legal aid is now, not ‘maybe later.’
In May, the organization representing Alberta prosecutors successfully lobbied the government to raise salaries after threatening to lobby to address chronic underfunding.
Shandro said at the time that the government had approved salary adjustments for prosecutors after an analysis of rates across the country showed their salaries were significantly lower.
But he said the situations facing prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys are not comparable.
“They are employees,” Shandro said of the province’s crown attorneys.
“It was different and it wasn’t like they were in the middle of a review of their entire compensation structure.”