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Legal dispute rages at Alberta courthouses

Defence lawyers across Alberta say they will no longer take on new legal aid cases starting Monday.

It's the latest job action from the province's four criminal lawyer associations as disputes over funding for legal aid continue with the provincial government.

Earlier this month, defence lawyers vowed to stop taking on new legal aid cases for serious crimes like sexual assault and homicide. There were also similar demonstrations in front of the Calgary and Edmonton court centres.

"We hoped that would be enough for the government to actually come and be boots on the ground and see what's happening and take us seriously and take the situation seriously. Unfortunately, it appears it was not enough," said Kelsey Sitar, vice-president of the Calgary Criminal Defence Lawyers association.

"We have received one letter from Minister Shandro since then, and it's been the same doublespeak we've seen in every other letter from before. So on Monday, we are going to stop taking all certificates,"

"There will be a very, very limited set of circumstances now where our members will do that. The default will be we are just taking no new work from legal aid until this problem is fixed."

CTV News reached out to Tyler Shandro's office for comment but has not yet heard back.

On Sept. 2, the following statement from Shandro was sent to CTV News:

"Any increases to the legal aid tariff, which is the rate that defence lawyers are paid for legal aid work, must be completed as part of the fall budget submission. Legal Aid Alberta (LAA) and officials in Justice and Solicitor General have begun this work, and if there is evidence to support increasing the rate paid to defence lawyers, we will submit that request to Treasury Board.

"John Panusa, CEO of LAA, has publicly stated that they have all required funding necessary to ensure uninterrupted access to justice and that no Albertans will go without legal aid services as a result of this job action."

Lawyers protesting in Calgary, Edmonton and Red Deer are also calling for the eligibility guidelines for Alberta Legal Aid to be expanded to accommodate more people struggling with the rising cost of living.

"The people who qualify are in the absolute most dire financial circumstances living below the poverty line. And that leaves a huge number of people who are barely getting by paycheque to paycheque," said Sarah Rankin, an associate at McKay Ferg LLP.

"They're working for and above without any access to services unless they're paying out of their own pocket."

Lawyers involved with legal aid files expect the latest job action to have a noticeable impact on the court system.

"When you think about the number of people in courtrooms, and the general public who require legal aid to manage their criminal file, who come to the courts without support, and the services that our members provide, and the number of people that they provide them to that is going to have a dramatic impact on Alberta courtrooms and the court process," said Rankin.

"The message is that the system doesn't function without us, and so, we are withdrawing those services because the conditions both for us and for the people who need legal aid and can't get it are just untenable at this point."

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. Top Stories

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