Lawyers in Calgary (pictured here) and Edmonton staged a courthouse strike in September to protest the lack of progress in their fight with the provincial government to increase legal aid funding. (Colleen Underwood/CBC – photo credit)
Homicide cases are being delayed, people without legal representation are being brought to justice and some Albertans are at risk of losing their children in custody cases.
These are some of the alarms sounded by two judges as Legal Aid Alberta’s labor lawsuit enters its 16th week.
Provincial Court Judge Susan Pepper expressed frustration several times Thursday as cases in her courtroom stalled, often because the defendants could not find an attorney.
“We have manslaughter adjourned on the labor lawsuit,” Pepper said to prosecutors and defense attorneys, who were in the courtroom and appeared virtually.
“An Unsolvable Problem”
A man who did not have a lawyer because of the industrial action appeared in court for the 15th time, wanting to set trial dates.
Calling the situation “an unsolvable problem,” Pepper said prosecutors must start setting trial dates even if an accused person wants a lawyer but can’t get one.
Meanwhile, Robert Philp, a retired judge and vice chair of the Edmonton Community Legal Center, wrote a letter to four defense organizations in Alberta, calling for increased funding for all legal aid programs.
“Working people and even middle-class Albertans cannot afford a lawyer and are increasingly going to court on their own,” Philp wrote in the letter, seen by CBC News.
“Alberta’s financial eligibility guidelines are set around the poverty line, at a true living wage.”
Those who represent themselves in court face the risk of serious consequences, including imprisonment, deportation, homelessness or losing custody of a child, Philip noted.
$22,000/year: too much to get help
A person earning more than $21,668 is not eligible for legal aid.
Legal Aid Alberta is a non-profit organization providing legal services to Albertans in family, domestic violence, child welfare, immigration and criminal defense cases.
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“We would urge the Alberta Government to increase legal aid funding so that claims policies can be based on the actual ability to pay of Alberta residents and to ensure competitive rates that allow attorneys to continue providing legal aid,” Philip said.
The attorneys, represented by organizations in Calgary, Edmonton, Red Deer and southern Alberta, filed labor lawsuits Aug. 8 and largely refuse to accept certain legal aid cases.
Attorneys taking part in the work action are asking the government to both increase the rates paid for legal aid cases and change the eligibility requirements to allow more Albertans to be eligible for assistance.
Most Legal Aid Alberta attorneys have refused to accept new legal aid cases since September 26.
“Decades of underfunding”
Last month, Attorney General Tyler Shandro announced that the province would increase salaries for legal aid attorneys by $9.60 an hour through spring 2023, when the province’s “comprehensive review” of eligibility policies and hourly rates is due.
But none of the funding is new or provincial money, says Kelsey Sitar, vice president of the Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.
“It was all federal money that the province had already given them that they had to use to fund criminal legal aid,” Sitar said.
More importantly, Sitar says the 8.2 percent increase “cannot make up for decades of underfunding” and “does nothing for impoverished Albertans trying to access legal aid services.”
“Essentially, it has brought the financial eligibility restrictions to what they were in 2010. Those limits would have required an additional increase of 31 percent just to account for inflation alone.”
In response to a request for comment, a spokesman for Alberta Justice says Legal Aid Alberta has not reported any cases where Albertans have not been able to access family or criminal defense attorneys because of insufficient funding, but has not said whether the labor action had affected the service .
“The Alberta government is open to further discussions with the criminal defense organizations and a further increase in the duty rate, and we hope that the four defense organizations will reconsider or suspend their work actions,” said Ethan Lecavalier-Niere.