Calgary

Editorial by legal aid president called 'vile,' prompts calls for resignation

The piece by Legal Aid Alberta president John Panusa came as dozens of lawyers walked out of courthouses across the province to protest the lack of progress in their fight with the provincial government for increased legal aid funding.

Resignation calls come amid walkout job action

Lawyers in Calgary protest the lack of progress in their fight with the provincial government for increased legal aid funding, (Colleen Underwood/CBC)

An opinion piece published in a Calgary newspaper by the president of legal aid sparked fury on Friday, spurring calls from a prominent Alberta lawyers' group for his resignation. 

The piece came as dozens of lawyers walked out of courthouses across the province to protest the lack of progress in their fight with the provincial government for increased legal aid funding.

Legal Aid Alberta (LAA) president John Panusa penned an editorial published Thursday in the Calgary Herald which attacked the organization's "roster lawyers" — counsel who take legal aid cases.

Panusa wrote that LAA is "OK" and has "sufficient funds" to support its services.

The piece elicited a strong reaction amongst some in the legal community. In a Tweet on Thursday, defence lawyer Chad Haggerty described Panusa's piece as "vile, tone deaf, uninformed."

Following Panusa's public comments, there were calls for his resignation, a demand LAA refused to comment on.

"Albertans deserve a legal aid CEO that is going to fight for them," said Criminal Trial Lawyers' Association president Danielle Boisvert on Friday.

"If you aren't willing to do what is right, Mr. Panusa, if you aren't going to fight for the most vulnerable people in this province, then what Albertans deserve is your resignation."

Calgary's Criminal Defence Lawyers Association (CDLA) is protesting what it describes as the "critical underfunding of access to justice." 

Dozens of Edmonton lawyers protested Friday. They say legal aid relies on free or underpaid work from its roster lawyers and many services which should be covered, are not, leaving vulnerable Albertans to face the court system alone. (Kory Siegers/CBC)

Lawyer and protest organizer Kelsey Sitar said Panusa's messaging ignores the fact that LAA relies on free or underpaid work from its roster lawyers and fails to provide many services that should be covered, leaving vulnerable Albertans to face the court system alone.

"It is the government that is obligated to ensure equal access to justice for all Albertans," said Sitar. "They cannot fulfil that obligation without help from defence lawyers."

LAA is a non-profit organization that provides legal services to Albertans in family, domestic violence, child welfare, immigration and criminal defence cases.

The lawyers, represented by organizations in Calgary, Edmonton, Red Deer and southern Alberta, launched a job action on Aug. 8 when they started refusing to accept certain legal aid cases.

'We are not going to do court without them'

Friday's walkout saw more than 100 lawyers and supporters gather outside courthouses across the province as they refused to work for 90 minutes.

Between 9 and 10:30 a.m., judges presiding over docket court stood down proceedings, waiting for counsel to return.

Some even seemed to support the action, refusing to start calling the list of accused until defence lawyers returned.

Senior defence lawyer Allan Fay joins the job action walkout on Friday at the Calgary Courts Centre. (Meghan Grant/CBC)

"We are not going to do court without them," said Court of Queen's Bench Justice Alice Wooley as she adjourned for an hour.

Earlier this month, Joseph Dow, Justice Minister Tyler Shandro's press secretary, said Alberta offers more legal aid services than other jurisdictions and that since 2015, the government has increased funding to LAA by 47 per cent.

But according to figures from LAA's annual reports, provincial government funding increased by 47 per cent between the 2015-16 and 2018-19 fiscal years, but decreased for the next two years.

Shandro not entitled to 'his own facts'

The province hasn't delivered on a 2018 funding commitment, now in arrears at $80 million, according to a statement released by a number of defence lawyer groups this week.

"It is dumfounding that Minister Shandro continues to suggest that legal aid funding has increased since 2015," said Sitar.

"Like anyone else, the minister is entitled to his own opinions, what he is not entitled to are his own facts."

On Friday afternoon, Shandro issued a release in which he repeated Panusa's comments that Albertans still have "uninterrupted access to justice."

Justice critic attends Calgary protest

Shandro would not commit to increasing funding but said work was being done to determine if there is justification to increase funding to LAA.

"Legal Aid Alberta (LAA) and officials in Justice and Solicitor General have begun this work, and if there is evidence to support increasing the rate paid to defence lawyers, we will submit that request to Treasury Board," said Shandro in statement on Friday.

Irfan Sabir, the NDP's justice critic, tweeted his support from the Calgary rally, saying that an NDP government would fulfil the $80 million.

"The [government] must act now, release all funding in arrears and work with the lawyer's organizations to reach a fair and reasonable agreement," Sabir wrote.

Lawyer groups have 'begged for more funding'

On Thursday, the participating lawyers began to refuse new LAA cases involving the most serious criminal charges, including sexual offences, firearms-related crimes and homicides.

Boisvert called the situation a "breaking point."

"We have written letters, provided feedback, offered solutions and begged for more funding so marginalized individuals are not left to face the crushing power of the state alone," she said on Friday.

The latest job actions have seen LAA's staff lawyers, who are not experts in criminal law, taking on docket cases.

Haggerty, who is one of the protesting lawyers, said he witnessed an LAA staff lawyer attempt to deal with an accused person being held on $100 cash bail.

That person was unable to pay and the staff lawyer was proposing to adjourn the case for a month, leaving the accused in custody despite being granted bail. A senior lawyer stepped in to make alternative arrangements and the accused was released, according to Haggerty.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Meghan Grant

CBC Calgary crime reporter

Meghan Grant is a justice affairs reporter. She has been covering courts, crime and stories of police accountability in southern Alberta for more than a decade. Send Meghan a story tip at meghan.grant@cbc.ca or follow her on Twitter.

With files from Gabriela Panza, Janice Johnston and Colleen Underwood

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