Job action at Calgary Courts Centre sees legal aid lawyers on the picket line
Disgruntled criminal defence lawyers, who have already begun to refuse certain cases in Alberta, stepped up their fight against the provincial government on Friday.
Several dozen protesters mobilized at the Calgary Court Centre, forming a picket line with signs showing their disapproval with their situation and displeasure with the treatment handed to them but the justice ministry.
Participants say this is the first time such action has taken place.
"It's never happened in this province before," said Kelsey Sitar, vice-president of the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association of Calgary.
"I don't know that we've ever even had defence lawyers organized to stop taking legal aid files of any kind. I know of it happening at times in other provinces – most recently in Ontario – but it is very unusual for it to have to come to this."
Friday's picket lines are a result of a fight between private-practice lawyers who accept cases from Legal Aid Alberta and the provincial government over a lack of funding. Those lawyers, referred to as roster lawyers, are requesting the government to increase the rate they are paid when they accept legal aid cases.
"It became increasingly clear that (a resolution) was just not going to happen and that we were going to have to take more drastic action in order to make it clear about how concerned we are about what's happening and what's going to happen," said Sarah Rankin, a criminal defence lawyer with McKay Berg LLP in Calgary.
She added, "certainly its unsustainable system-wise if we want the standards we think Albertans deserve."
In mid-August, representatives of multiple associations that provide legal aid to clients resolved that, starting Sept. 1, they would refuse files involving Alberta's most serious criminal offences – those listed as level 2.5 or level 3 offences.
Some of those offences include armed robbery, human trafficking, terrorism and murder.
Lawyers say without proper funding, Albertans who are charged with crimes don't have access to justice and the counsel who represent them aren't adequately compensated.
"This government treats this as almost like a thorn in their side. They've funded the police on several different occasions in the last few years, they've funded the prosecution on several occasions in the last few years and legal aid has remained the same and work has doubled," said John Hooker, a member of the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association of Calgary.
As a Calgary lawyer practising for nearly 47 years, he says he believes the current state of legal aid is failing.
"My friends over here tend to work weekends, late nights, long, long hours and the reason for that is because we are bound my our ethics to give a reasonable defense," said Hooker.
The organization says talks up to this point with Justice Minister Tyler Shandro have been characterized as "dismissive" while the UCP government has said it wants to wait until a formal review of Legal Aid Alberta's administrative system is complete.
Shandro told the media this week that any move before that would sabotage that process.
While the review is expected to be complete in October, the ongoing battle is expected to create a further backlog in Alberta's legal system until the dispute is resolved.
Legal Aid Alberta (LAA) directed CTV News' request for comment to a news release that says, "We have said time and again that roster lawyers are integral to LAA. They are our closest partners. LAA does not control the rate of pay. This is solely in the control of the Ministry. We are doing everything within our control to modernize administrative processes for roster lawyers in recognition of the services they provide.
The release added, "criminal defence lawyers who are participating in job action are not employees of LAA and do not represent all private sector roster lawyers who do legal aid work."
LAA says there are 1,200 roster legal aid lawyers and 300 staff province wide.
More than 35,000 Albertans are clients via LAA with about 61,000 active files.
Alberta Justice did not provide any additional comment on this story on Friday.
(With files from CTV Edmonton)