Skip to main content

Alberta's criminal defence lawyers ramp up job action

Defence lawyers across Alberta have stopped taking on new legal aid cases, the latest move in a long battle with the provincial government.

Those cases already before the courts with clients being represented through legal aid will continue but, as of Monday, criminal defence lawyers from three groups across the province will no longer represent new clients.

At issue is the amount legal aid lawyers are paid for their services, the manner in which they are able to bill for their services and the income threshold for people to access legal aid.

"What we're trying to achieve is to bring this obvious point home very strongly to the government as quickly as possible," said Ian Savage president of the Calgary Criminal Defense Lawyers Association (CDLA).

"So they come to their senses, and compensate the lawyers properly and also, keep the access to justice open for the most vulnerable."

Savage says that at the height of the pandemic, when case loads were low, the province took $80 million out of legal aid despite a funding agreement reached in 2018.

"This is the opportunity to rectify that wrong," said Savage. "Did they realize that at that time and do what they needed to do then? No. They scooped the money back from the most vulnerable, and their representatives, and put it back into general coffers."

Savage also maintains the threshold for qualifying for legal aid is too low, saying it bars many Albertans from effective representation in the courts.

"The cut-off point in Alberta is basically $21,000 a year. We're concerned about what we call the 'working poor.' Anyone on minimum wage does not qualify for legal aid," said Savage.

"How are you going to pay for on your own five, 10 or 20 thousand dollars' worth of legal fees? For a two or four-day trial, let alone a three-week trial."

Last week, Alberta Justice Minister Tyler Shandro said no change to legal aid funding would come before the next provincial budget.

Monday, Shandro said the province is currently reviewing legal aid and says satisfying the demands of criminal defence lawyers ahead of its conclusion would undermine the process.

While he says he's sympathetic to the lawyers' position and is willing to discuss future changes, that will only happen after the review is finished.

"We're willing to have conversations about whether there needs to be increases in the tariff or whether there needs to be changes to the financial eligibility guidelines, but I think that's a next step after the review in October is completed,'' Shandro said.

"We've heard the advocacy from the criminal defence bar that there needs to be changes to how they're compensated. That's the next step.''

NDP justice critic Ifran Sabir says the government's fight with defence lawyers puts Albertans at risk, and should be solved immediately.

"This justice minister needs to get to work right away, instead of wasting his time, on things like Alberta provincial police force, which nobody's asking for, and deal with issues like legal aid," Sabir said.

"This job action is not in the interest of anyone. Alberta families – those going through court processes – they will suffer. Our justice system will suffer, and at the end of the day, delivery of justice will suffer."

Mount Royal criminologist Kelly Sundberg says the job action by criminal defence lawyers will have a wider effect than most people realize. Sundberg says it will back up courtrooms and further clog a court system already facing long delays.

"These job actions are going to cause a backlog. If the minister waits until there's the next budget, we're going to see a real crisis in our criminal justice system, I fear," said Sundberg.

"This is going to have a big impact. And I really do think Albertans should take heed to this.

"This is this is serious stuff." Top Stories

Stay Connected