One of Alberta's top provincial court judges is planning to sideline three pending criminal cases unless Legal Aid can be provided to the defendants in question.
Assistant Chief Judge Larry Anderson had been asked to review the cases, all of which involve defendants who live under the poverty line and are receiving financial assistance from Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH).
In all three cases, Anderson ruled that unless a lawyer is provided to them within a week, their charges will be stayed.
In his 35-page decision, Anderson wrote "it is not the court's role to tell the government how public monies should be spent".
However, Anderson – who is a former defense lawyer – said the courts should not rely on lawyers providing their services for free.
"Providing access to justice is the obligation of the government, not good-willed citizens,” he wrote.
Calling the current funding quote for Alberta’s Legal Aid "clearly inadequate," Anderson said the courts can expect to see more applications like these made by people turned down by Legal Aid.
"We're not surprised that Judge Anderson made the decision he did," said defense lawyer Kent Teskey on Thursay, adding that it would be unrealistic to expect the three defendants in question to defend themselves in court.
"We felt there was really some inevitable conclusions to be drawn here. The fact is that people who are in the criminal justice system who exist under the poverty line are simply incapable of hiring lawyers," Teskey said.
"And lawyers are a necessary and essential part of having a fair trial run for these people."
Teskey estimates there are currently hundreds of people working their way through the Legal Aid process, and said many of those will end up in a similar situation to the three defendants examined by Anderson.
"The fact is, this is simply the tip of the iceberg," he said. "If anything, this should be a signal to Mr. Denis that this is a problem he can't ignore or slough off onto the Federal Government. This is his responsibility."
Alberta's Justice Minister Jonathan Denis has rejected the idea of putting more money into Legal Aid. Instead, he has asked Ottawa to invest more money in Alberta.
But that is not enough for Teskey.
"At the end of the day, [Denis] is responsible for the administration of justice in this province and he has failed," he said.
According to the Legal Aid Society of Alberta and Statistics Canada, only New Brunswick and P.E.I. spend less per capita on legal aid.