To draw more attention to what they call a broken legal aid system, organizations representing Alberta’s criminal defense lawyers say their members are ready to take more professional action next month.
“Defence attorneys will refuse serious legal aid cases beginning September 1,” read a joint statement released by the Criminal Defense Lawyers Association (CDLA), Criminal Trial Lawyers Association (CTLA), Southern Alberta Defense Lawyers’ Association (SADL), and the Red Deer Criminal Lawyers Association (RDCDLA) on Thursday.
“As of September 1, 2022, our members will begin to deny new certificates for all criminal appeals. They will also refuse new legal aid cases for the most serious criminal offenses – those classified as Level 2.5 or Level 3 offenses by Legal Aid Alberta. This includes most sexual offences, firearms offences, all homicides and dangerous offender prosecutions.
“To ensure that we do not harm our existing clients, this pressure action does not imply the cancellation of level 2.5 or 3 certificates previously accepted by our members, and it should not affect hearing dates. already planned.
“None of these steps were taken lightly. This has a significant personal and financial cost to our members.
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The groups released the statement a week after announcing they would extend part of their action at work following a meeting with Justice Minister Tyler Shandro. At the time, they said that until September 2, they would continue to refuse legal aid cases requiring bail-only services, courtroom duty counsel services, counsel for complainants (pursuant to section 276 of the Criminal Code) and cross-examination.
“This summer, members of Alberta’s four defense bar associations united in a fight for equal access to justice for all Albertans,” reads in part the statement from Thursday. “To highlight the continued underfunding of Legal Aid Alberta, we began to withdraw our services on August 8, 2022.
“These efforts have garnered national support from defense attorneys and Crown prosecutors. As lawyers on the ground in courtrooms across the country know, legal aid underfunding is a national problem.
The groups said they told Shandro and Legal Aid Alberta CEO John Panusa that the province currently has a “unique opportunity.”
“With a budget surplus and a strong economy, now is the time for a comprehensive review,” the group said. “A real and informed change now to our decades-old lawyers’ fee schedule, our shameful financial eligibility guidelines and our political habit of under-providing funding could make Alberta a leader in the providing quality legal services to the most vulnerable in society.
The groups said a letter from Shandro on Wednesday told them their appeals “continue to fall on deaf ears.”
A spokesperson for the Alberta government provided Global News with a copy of Shandro’s letter on Thursday.
“I appreciated the opportunity to hear your concerns and suggestions first hand,” the letter read. “While there is room for progress and we are committed to working with you to make improvements, I note that since 2015 the Government of Alberta has increased funding for Legal Aid Alberta by 47% , thereby ensuring the delivery of legal aid to a growing population under changing economic conditions and in accordance with government priorities.
Although Shandro says funding has increased since 2015, his United Conservative Party only formed government in 2019. Legal Aid Alberta’s 2019-2020 annual report shows the province’s funding has actually been cut from $104.1 million in 2019 to $91.8 million in 2020. Reduced government funding, Legal Aid Alberta’s total revenue actually increased slightly between 2019 and 2020 thanks to grants from the Alberta Law Foundation, a non-profit organization.
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“Alberta’s provision of key services such as free criminal and family court duty counsel to all Albertans, and presumptive eligibility for legal aid for Albertans on assured income for people with severe disabilities, are key aspects of our system,” reads Shandro’s letter.
“The Government of Alberta has always ensured that the LAA has sufficient funding to meet the demand for its services, and there have been no instances of eligible Albertans not having access to services. due to insufficient funding.”
Shandro acknowledged that the groups have expressed what they say is an immediate and much-needed increase in the legal aid hourly rate and financial eligibility guidelines.
“(Panusa) has taken this opportunity to highlight the excellent work that has been underway through the LAA redesign and the significant service delivery improvements implemented during the pandemic,” the letter reads. “I want to reiterate the importance of completing the current modernization review that the LAA is undertaking to inform overall policy decisions regarding rates.
“LAA has indicated that it expects this work to be completed in October 2022.
“As discussed, any increase in the legal aid tariff or GEF must be completed as part of the fall budget tabling. LAA and my ministry will work together to start this comprehensive process and we seek your input into this process. As this work is completed, and there is evidence to support the rate increase, that evidence will be used in our Treasury Board submissions.
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Opposition justice spokesman Irfan Sabir issued a statement on the situation on Thursday via a press release.
“All Albertans deserve fair representation when brought before the courts. It is the cornerstone of our justice system,” he said. “The Jordan decision and the COVID-19 pandemic have put tremendous pressure on our justice system, already causing delays.
“It is more important than ever that we have a properly funded and functioning legal aid system to help address and alleviate these pressures.
Sabir noted that although Alberta had an NDP government, she had pledged a $70 million funding increase to the LAA over four years and said he had asked Shandro to honor that deal as well. than to “engage immediately with the relevant groups of lawyers to reach an agreement”. which is fair, reasonable and comparable to other provinces.
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