Legal Aid Alberta

Since cash-strapped Legal Aid Alberta has had to cut the number of Albertans it provides legal services, more judges have been ordering the province to provide the funds on a case-by-case basis. (CBC )

An ongoing legal aid funding crunch is prompting more judges around the province to invoke their seldom-used authority to order the government to pay for a lawyer to defend people accused of crimes.

In July Legal Aid Alberta, a non-profit agency that provides legal services to people in need, announced it was cutting jobs in Calgary and closing all six of its offices in northern Alberta in an effort to save $4 million over three years.

The organization also tightened its financial eligibility guidelines earlier this year, leaving more low-income Albertans accused of crimes without lawyers as their cases get to court.

Cochrane lawyer Greg Axelson said he sees more people accused of shoplifting and other crimes not likely to result in jail time pleading guilty because they have no defence lawyer.

"Because the person is not going to jail, and they can't get a lawyer, it is likely they will end up pleading guilty, even if it is not the case,” he said.

"Often times, it's the first offence so they have a criminal record and then they are deprived of employment opportunities, mobility to cross borders, all kinds of things."

Charges stayed

Earlier this month, Assistant Chief Judge Larry Anderson took the unusual step of deciding charges would have to be stayed against three criminal defendants — who live below the poverty line and cannot afford legal counsel — unless lawyers were provided for them.

And since February, judges have made similar orders for the government to cover more than 40 different people who were initially denied assistance.

Legal aid vice-president Deanne Friesen said she expects many more such cases to come.

"Certainly we anticipate a rather huge influx of this. The courts have taken it upon themselves to make some of the orders."

Friesen said Legal Aid Alberta looks at the seriousness of a charge against an applicant and the possible outcome. Possible jail time is considered, as well as the person's criminal history, she said.

The organization has said it needs at least another $8 million in funding each year to continue helping people who can’t afford lawyers on their own. 

Alberta Justice Minister Jonathan Denis has said the province is doing its part to fund legal aid and that the federal government needs to step in.