Calgary

'Not an empty threat': Criminal defence lawyers warn of potential strike

The Calgary-based Criminal Defence Lawyers Association says the legal system is "broken" and delays to accessing justice are becoming worse, not better.

Association says there is a $60-million funding shortfall for legal aid in Alberta

Ian Savage, president of the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association, says a strike is not out of the question. (Mike Symington/CBC)

The Criminal Defence Lawyers Association says the legal system is "broken" and delays to accessing justice are becoming worse, not better.

And, if the provincial government does nothing to fix the problem, a strike is on the table.

"It's not an empty threat," said Ian Savage, president of the association.

He said trial delays are increasing and disadvantage people are not getting their day in court. 

Savage said the group sent a letter to Alberta Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley "with a sense of complete desperation" asking the government "to do the right thing about legal aid and funding and access to justice."

The province is currently in talks with the Legal Aid Alberta about its governance agreement.

"We're in ongoing negotiations," Ganley told reporters later Tuesday. "We obviously think that legal aid is important, that is why we've been increasing funds as much as we have over the past little while."

She declined to discuss how the government might react if the defence lawyers followed through on threatened job action, saying she didn't have enough details.

$60-million shortfall

Savage told reporters at the Calgary Court Centre on Tuesday the next action is to participate in the case management system "only to a certain degree" to insure their comments are recorded in court "so that delays can be properly displayed later."

He said there will be a significant increase in the number of cases being set for trial, leading to further delays. 

"It'll point out the fact to the government that more money needs to be put into legal aid," he said. 

According to Savage, there is a $60-million shortfall.

Savage said it's important the government understand that the job action is not going away.

"It's going to get louder, it's going to bring to the attention of the public the plight of the criminal justice system and how legal aide, the linchpin, needs to be funded more properly," he said. "Certainly cases are being delayed more and more, and it's simply a fact the system is underfunded throughout and it's falling apart."

Savage said a strike is a distinct possibility.

"It's absolutely an option," he said. 

Savage noted that in a similar situation in Ontario, the senior lawyers agreed not to take on any new cases, including serious ones like murder, leaving people unrepresented and government scrambling to find lawyers another way.

"I wouldn't say it's an option of last resort," he said. "We have a list of options in our back pocket that we're prepared to employ at any time."

About the Author

Lucie Edwardson

Journalist

Lucie Edwardson is a reporter with CBC Calgary, currently focused on bringing you stories related to education in Alberta. In 2018 she headed a pop-up bureau in Lethbridge, Alta,. Her experience includes newspaper, online, TV and radio. Follow her on Twitter @LucieEdwardson

With files from Laurent Pirot