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Alberta defence lawyers take job action to protest legal aid underfunding

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Defence lawyers in Alberta will not be taking on certain legal aid cases over the next two weeks to push the government to correct what they call “perpetual underfunding” of the system.

Jaymie Petty has used legal aid before and says the process isn’t easy.

“You almost feel like you already lost the battle,” she told CTV News.

Petty is currently going through a custody battle and says if she didn’t have her parents’ financial support, she would likely still be waiting for a lawyer through legal aid.

For the next two weeks, more than 100 defence lawyers will not be providing bail only services, courtroom duty counsel services, complainant counsel services and cross-examination of complainant services for Legal Aid Alberta.

While Petty said she understands their concerns, she worries about how this could impact people who rely on it.

“To know that someone like me is going to have to wait an extra two weeks on top of the already huge wait to get a lawyer, it’s terrifying. I feel extremely scared and sad for them,” she said.

The Criminal Defence Lawyers Association, the Criminal Trial Lawyers’ Association and the Southern Alberta Defence Lawyers’ Association are behind the work stoppage.

DISAPPOINTING MEETING WITH JUSTICE MINISTER

Alberta’s justice minister met with them on Monday.

Ian Savage, president of the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association, was there and called the meeting “disappointing” as no immediate action was taken.

Tyler Shandro. (File photo.)

“Compensate the defence lawyers just like they properly compensate the prosecutors and the judges for the work that needs to be done in this system because you can’t have a justice system without defence lawyers,” he said.

Minister Tyler Shandro isn’t opposed to a budget bump, but a review won’t happen until next year.

According to the Ministry of Justice, funding has already increased 47 per cent since 2015.

However, the lawyers say Legal Aid Alberta received nearly $55 million less than what was promised between 2020 and 2022.

“The only way that they can function is by paying experienced lawyers $25 an hour effectively to do exceptional work,” Savage said.

As a result, he said the quality of services has gone down.

“Our defence bar has been decimated by people leaving and by burnout. As a result, the level of experienced lawyers has significantly decreased, which means that for all those serious cases out there, people are not getting proper service,” Savage said.

Another two weeks of job action will happen in September if the province refuses to meet lawyers’ requests.

“We’re serious and we’re not giving up this time,” Savage said.

The Alberta Crown Attorneys’ Association hopes it doesn’t come to that.

“Any withdrawal of services is concerning for the justice system and for our association because it undermines the efficiency of the court system and the likelihood of just outcomes,” said Dallas Sopko, president of the association.

When crown prosecutors threatened job action earlier this year, the government increased their salaries within weeks.

Lisa Silver, a law professor at the University of Calgary, said it’s important the justice system is properly funded.

“If you want to see a healthy justice system, if you want to see trial fairness, if you want to see matters be prosecuted and defended within a reasonable time — and that’s of concern for every citizen — then, you have to fund legal aid properly,” she said.

Minister Shandro said work is already underway to modernize the legal aid tariff in the province. Results from that review will be available in the fall.

“We recognize and respect the importance of the work criminal lawyers do, and we are committed to working with our justice partners to make sure Albertans have access to publicly funded legal services in our province,” a statement from his office said.

On top of funding concerns, Alberta defence lawyer groups are also calling for expanded eligibility for legal aid.

Right now, there are more than 60,000 legal aid cases in Alberta. About 3,500 involve youth aged 12 to 17.

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