Criminal defence lawyers escalated job action Thursday in an ongoing dispute with the provincial government over the amount of compensation paid by Legal Aid Alberta.
Four organizations representing lawyers in Edmonton, Calgary, Red Deer and southern Alberta began job action Aug. 8 by refusing to accept certain bail and duty counsel files from legal aid.
The latest move ups the ante.
“We will also begin refusing certificates for new cases for the most serious criminal charges, including sexual offences, most firearms-related crimes and homicides,” said the statement on behalf of the groups.
“With defence lawyers no longer willing to prop up a broken system, our courts will be swamped with more and more self-represented persons. Matters will take longer, backlogs will mount, access to justice will decline and overall system costs will increase.”
The legal organizations are also planning a 90-minute walkout at courthouses in Edmonton and Calgary on Friday morning to protest the lack of progress in their fight for increased legal aid funding.
“Enough is enough. We made clear that we would no longer work most of the time for free to prop up a system that forces the most vulnerable of Albertans to accept a bargain-basement defence,” said the statement.
Justice Minister Tyler Shandro said nothing is going to be done until a review of the Legal Aid Alberta administrative system is complete.
“It’s going to be done in October, so it’s not like it’s going to be that far into the future,” Shandro said. “The advice that I’ve been given is that it would actually undermine that review if we were to quickly make a change to the tariff right now.”
Submissions for the 2023 budget usually begin in October and November, he said.
“We’re not saying no to reviewing the tariff … we can do that,” Shandro said. “It just has to be done after the review that legal aid is doing right now.”
Shandro said the government is monitoring the effects of the job action
“We’ve been watching to see if there are any effects and if there are any ways in which someone’s access to justice is being impeded,” he said.
“Legal Aid has the funding that they need to be able to make sure that people have the legal services that they require.”
However, criminal defence lawyers say waiting is not an option.
“We won’t wait any longer. You have heard the chorus of voices supporting the need for properly funded legal aid; we are not alone,” their statement said. “The time to fund legal aid is now, not ‘maybe later.’”
In May, the organization representing Alberta prosecutors successfully lobbied the government to raise salaries after threatening job action to address chronic underfunding.
Shandro said at the time that the government had approved pay adjustments for prosecutors after an analysis of rates across the country showed their salaries were noticeably lower.
But he said the situations facing prosecutors and criminal defence lawyers are not comparable.
“They’re employees,” Shandro said of the province’s Crown attorneys.
“That was different and it wasn’t like they were in the in the middle of a review of their entire compensation structure.”