A recent opinion piece penned by the president of Legal Aid Alberta (LAA) has ignited a firestorm of controversy and calls for his resignation from prominent legal groups in Alberta. This article comes at a time when numerous lawyers across the province have walked out of courthouses in protest against the lack of progress in their ongoing battle with the provincial government for increased legal aid funding.
President’s Provocative Remarks
John Panusa, the president of Legal Aid Alberta, authored an op-ed in the Calgary Herald that targeted “roster lawyers” — counsel who take on legal aid cases. In his piece, Panusa asserted that LAA is financially sound, stating that it has “adequate funds” to support its services.
Panusa’s comments received a vehement response from some members of the legal community. Defence lawyer Chad Haggerty described Panusa’s piece as “vile, tone-deaf, [and] uninformed” in a tweet, reflecting the outrage sparked by the op-ed.
Calls for Resignation
Following Panusa’s public statements, numerous calls have been made for his resignation. Legal Trial Lawyers’ Association president Danielle Boisvert stated that Albertans deserve a legal aid CEO who will advocate for them, and if Panusa is unwilling to do so for the most vulnerable individuals in the province, then his resignation is warranted.
Calgary’s Legal Defence Lawyers Association (CDLA) also voiced its protest against what it perceives as “significant underfunding of access to justice.” The lawyers involved in these protests argue that legal aid relies heavily on unpaid or underpaid work from roster lawyers. Additionally, many necessary services are not covered, leaving vulnerable Albertans to navigate the legal system without adequate support.
Protests Gain Momentum
These protests reached their peak with over 100 lawyers and their supporters gathering outside courthouses across the province for a 90-minute walkout. During the walkout, docket court judges halted proceedings, waiting for counsel to return between 9 and 10:30 a.m. Some judges even expressed support for the protest, refusing to call the list of accused individuals until defense lawyers returned.
Justice Alice Wooley, presiding over the Court of Queen’s Bench, explicitly stated, “We’re not going to do court without them,” as she adjourned proceedings for an hour. This demonstration showcased the legal community’s commitment to addressing the issue at hand.
Earlier in the month, Joseph Dow, the press secretary for Justice Minister Tyler Shandro, asserted that Alberta offers more legal aid services than other jurisdictions and highlighted a 47% increase in funding to LAA since 2015. However, figures from LAA’s annual reports indicate that provincial government funding decreased in the subsequent two years after that initial increase.
Regarding the $80 million funding commitment from 2018 that remains outstanding, Kelsey Sitar, a lawyer and protest organizer, emphasized that Minister Shandro continues to suggest that legal aid funding has increased since 2015. She underscored that while the minister is entitled to his opinions, he is not entitled to his own facts.
Minister Shandro, in a statement released on Friday afternoon, reiterated John Panusa’s assertion that Albertans still have “uninterrupted access to justice.” While Shandro did not commit to increasing funding, he stated that work is underway to determine whether there is justification for additional funding to LAA.
Prominent Support and Legal Aid Staffing
Irfan Sabir, the NDP’s justice critic, expressed his support for the protest in Calgary, promising that an NDP government would fulfill the $80 million commitment. He urged the government to act promptly, release all outstanding funding, and collaborate with lawyers’ organizations to reach a fair and equitable agreement.
Legal groups participating in the protests have been vocal about their pleas for additional funding, as they have sought solutions to address the challenges faced by marginalized individuals navigating the legal system. The recent job actions have seen LAA’s staff lawyers, who are not specialists in criminal law, handling docket cases. According to Chad Haggerty, a protesting lawyer, an LAA staff lawyer attempted to handle a case involving an accused individual held on $100 cash bail. The accused could not afford to pay, and the staff lawyer proposed adjourning the case for a month, which would have left the accused in custody despite being granted bail. Intervention by a senior lawyer led to alternative arrangements and the release of the accused.
The legal community’s protests continue to put the spotlight on the critical issue of legal aid funding in Alberta, highlighting the challenges faced by both lawyers and vulnerable individuals seeking access to justice.