Legal Aid lawyers demand funding increase from provincial government

Defence lawyers in Alberta who handle Legal Aid cases are withholding some voluntary services in protest of what they say is continued underfunding of the program.

Criminal Defence Lawyers Association want 65% increase over next 4 years, starting with a 40% bump in 2018

Legal Aid lawyers will stop doing things like fully participating in the case management system as part of their demands for increased funding. (David Bell/CBC)

Defence lawyers in Alberta who handle Legal Aid cases are withholding some voluntary services in protest of what they say is continued underfunding of the program.

The Criminal Defence Lawyers Association wants a 65 per cent increase in funding over the next four years — starting with a 40 per cent bump in 2018 — president Ian Savage wrote in an open letter to Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley this week.

He said he penned the letter "with a complete sense of desperation."

"What is the point of a constitutional right to counsel upon arrest in this country if after charges are laid, the government consciously decides to robustly fund police, prosecutors and jails year after year, but equally consciously decides to severely underfund the opposite side in our adversarial system, Legal Aid, year after year....," he wrote.

"Like a shackled and starving foster child locked in a filthy closet for years, the Legal Aid program is a neglected and degraded shadow of its true potential and is robbing poor and disadvantaged Albertans of their futures."

Action planned

Savage says Legal Aid lawyers will stop doing things like fully participating in the case management system, which he says results in defence lawyers doing the work that should be done by courts.

Instead, cases from the Case Management Office — a counter at the courthouse where justices of the peace handle logistics — will be moved to courtrooms with judges.

Defence lawyers can spend two to three hours a day dealing with the management office and that time will be more apparent if they appear before a court, Savage said.

"It is to expose to the government, to the public and even to other players within the system like judges or prosecutors, it's to expose how much work has actually been improperly downloaded to the defence bar," Savage told CBC News.  

"And secondarily, it is to expose the underfunding of Legal Aid by the government that has caused us to finally say enough is enough."

Savage says funding to the legal aid system is short by $60 million.

Read the letter below:

With files from The Canadian Press