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Alberta Justice to lay off 90 civil lawyers, outsource more legal work to meet budget cuts

Alberta Justice is preparing to lay off 90 civil-law lawyers as its legal services division struggles to absorb a $20-million budget cut, an internal memo obtained by CBC News shows.

Internal memo says legal services division must cut $20 million from its budget

Alberta Justice will be "outsourcing considerably more legal work," according to an internal memo obtained by CBC News. (Josee St-Onge/CBC)

Alberta Justice is preparing to lay off 90 civil-law lawyers as its legal services division struggles to absorb a $20-million budget cut, an internal memo obtained by CBC News shows.

The document also reveals government departments will be "outsourcing considerably more legal work than they are now."

Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer is making the cuts despite an internal draft white paper that found outsourcing of legal work by the government will cost about two to three times more than retaining lawyers and doing the work in house.

CBC News has obtained a copy of the white paper, which was created for review and discussion within the Legal Services division of Alberta Justice.

The white paper said government lawyers are paid less than their private counterparts and their salaries have been "largely frozen for the past several years, whereas there is no mechanism for such capping in the private legal sector."

Assistant deputy minister Tom Rothwell sent the memo about the looming cuts to civil lawyers Wednesday.

In it, he said the legal services division tried to take a more "incremental" and methodical approach to implementing cuts, but that was rejected by the government.

Rothwell said the legal division wanted to focus on "assessing what legal services would be cut or reduced, and using that analysis to determine where downsizing should be implemented," as well as "creating a proposal that would see the division reduce our budget by about $10 million at the end of three years" — half the targeted reduction.

"We recently received confirmation that any proposal must meet the full $20-million reduction, as opposed to an incremental approach," Rothwell wrote.

"Creative ideas to reduce costs, such as having lawyers move to other departments and then being seconded back to the division, or having lawyers work less hours at reduced salaries, etc. will not allow us to meet the budget targets and do not reduce the size and cost of the public sector," the memo says.

Rothwell said the cuts will impact legal services the Justice lawyers provide to all government departments, as legal teams shrink and focus on government work deemed a priority.

"Although we will continue to seek to mitigate the impact of the budget reduction, at this point in time, in order to meet our 2022/23 budget target, the division must provide working notice to about 90 lawyers in January 2020."

Minister defends cuts

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for Schweitzer said Justice, like all government departments, "requires spending carefully and finding savings.

"The Legal Services Division will downsize to meet budget targets, while the department continues to support Albertans' other priorities such as frontline policing and faster, fairer and more responsive criminal justice with additional Crown prosecutors and innovative measures such as alternative court systems like Drug Treatment Courts and Indigenous Courts," the statement said.

Schweitzer, in his statement, said "all governments – including the previous NDP government – have used outside counsel," including when the legal services division was larger than it is now. 

But the draft white paper warned that outsourcing legal work can result in more expense. 

"Since many legal risks can go undetected by the clients, or may not be assessed in terms of magnitude or timing of risk, preventative law aspects in many cases cannot be outsourced," the white paper states.

"By the time an issue is large enough to prepare to send to outside counsel, much of the damage may well have been done," it continues. "With a reduced in-house presence, unnoticed legal issues could grow in risk as limitations pass and as contracts and commitments to third parties may be entered into without first obtaining legal advice."

The white paper also said "these legal risks are often associated with financial consequences, which early detection and intervention can help avoid. Legal Services performs these preventative law practices in many cases on a regular basis in the normal course of their work, as it is in the day-to-day review that problematic issues are found."

NDP justice critic Kathleen Ganley said the cuts are short-sighted. 

"It is kind of like deferring maintenance," Ganley said. "It is a very typical conservative manoeuvre. It makes it look like you're saving money in the short term but really in the long term you are incurring all of these costs from not having done the upfront legal work."

But she said a bigger concern is whether there will be timely legal work for such issues as child welfare applications.

"If you're delaying applications in those areas, those are children that are being removed from homes [and] they're being removed from the home for a reason, and delaying those applications is not good for anyone," she said.

"It is going to increase conflict. It is going to potentially put people at risk, and I think I think we should all be really, really concerned about that."

Ganley said she also has concerns about the politics and transparency surrounding the outsourcing of legal work. 

"I do have concerns about those contracts potentially going specifically to firms who perhaps have more lawyers that are donors to the political party," she said.

"And I think that there's now it's ultimately it's more cost to the public. It's less transparent and it potentially sort of comes with a whole host of concerns of having having contracts with no public oversight."

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