Judge criticizes legal aid after lawyers fail to appear
Saint John lawyer says Legal Aid New Brunswick is fixated on saving money
A Saint John judge is calling on Legal Aid New Brunswick to explain why its lawyers failed to show up in two recent court cases.
Provincial Court Judge Andrew LeMesurier said he had to adjourn court twice recently because duty counsel lawyers did not turn up for the job, a situation that he described as "totally unacceptable."
There are three staff criminal lawyers who work for Legal Aid New Brunswick in the greater Saint John area. Yet, none of them showed up in LeMesurier’s court on Wednesday.
Robert Penney, the chief operating officer for the commission, said an internal "snafu" led to the failure of any of the three legal aid lawyers to show up in court.
But one Saint John lawyer said he believes what happened this week is the latest example of a major problem with the province’s legal aid system.
Brian Munro, a defence lawyer, said he thinks the system has become fixated on saving money and that is having a harmful effect on justice.
He also said he thinks legal aid staff lawyers may even feel pressure to have their clients enter guilty pleas or to avoid trial by jury, just to save money.
Munro said people deserve a vigorous defence even if they cannot afford one.
"You don't pussy foot around it you're representing someone who is innocent, who believes they are innocent, wants their day in court, wants to fight the charge," Munro said.
"You don’t pussy foot around the idea that we're not going to use this particular means of defending you, because it costs too much. In other words, there shouldn’t be a price tag put on justice."
Penney said he may add another staff lawyer in Saint John, but he says the legal aid system is working and no lawyer has ever been pressured to cut corners.
"It's just so far out of bounds, either to make the request or to receive it and act on the request or even to entertain it or consider it. It is so far out of bounds that it's not something we would even consider," he said.
Penney said he will meet with LeMesurier next week to discuss the judge's concerns with the system.
The Legal Aid commission was created in 2005 and there have been a series of reports looking at its effectiveness.
It has also had its funding questioned by lawyers and judges in the past.
In 2009, two New Brunswick judges criticized cuts to legal aid funding
In 2012, a Moncton lawyer said the lack of legal aid funding was hurting the working poor.