In an unprecedented move, disgruntled criminal defense lawyers in Alberta intensified their protest against the provincial government on Friday. Dozens of protesters gathered at the Calgary Court Centre, forming picket lines adorned with signs conveying their dissatisfaction with the situation and the treatment they’ve received from the justice ministry.
Kelsey Sitar, the vice president of the Legal Defence Lawyers Association of Calgary, remarked that this type of action had never occurred in the province before, making it a historic demonstration of discontent among defense lawyers.
This protest stems from a dispute between private-practice lawyers, known as roster lawyers, who accept legal aid cases from Legal Aid Alberta (LAA), and the provincial government over insufficient funding. Roster lawyers are demanding an increase in the rates they receive when handling legal aid cases.
Sarah Rankin, a criminal defense lawyer with McKay Berg LLP in Calgary, stated that it became evident that a resolution was unlikely to materialize, prompting the need for more drastic action. She emphasized that the current system is unsustainable if Alberta aims to meet the standards of legal representation that its residents deserve.
In mid-August, representatives of various legal aid associations resolved to refuse cases involving Alberta’s most serious criminal offenses, classified as level 2.5 or level 3 offenses, starting from September 1. These offenses encompass crimes such as armed robbery, human trafficking, terrorism, and murder.
Lawyers argue that without proper funding, individuals charged with crimes lack access to justice, and the legal counsel representing them is inadequately compensated. They contend that while the government has allocated funds to the police and prosecution in recent years, legal aid funding has remained stagnant despite a doubling of the workload.
John Hooker, a member of the Legal Defence Lawyers Association of Calgary, believes that the current state of legal aid is failing, emphasizing that lawyers often work long hours, including weekends, to provide an affordable defense.
The legal community has characterized its discussions with Justice Minister Tyler Shandro as “dismissive,” while the UCP government has expressed its intent to wait until a formal review of LAA’s administrative system is completed. Shandro stated that any action taken before the review is finished would undermine the process.
Although the review is expected to conclude in October, the ongoing dispute is likely to create further backlogs in Alberta’s legal system until a resolution is reached.
Legal Aid Alberta directed inquiries to a news release emphasizing that roster lawyers are integral to LAA and that the rate of pay is under the control of the Ministry. LAA is making efforts to modernize administrative processes for roster lawyers. The release also noted that criminal defense lawyers participating in job action are not LAA employees and do not represent all private sector roster lawyers who handle legal aid cases.
According to LAA, there are 1,200 roster legal aid lawyers and 300 staff members across the province. More than 35,000 Albertans are clients through LAA, with approximately 61,000 active cases.
Alberta Justice did not provide additional comments on the matter as of Friday.