Lawyers end project aimed at helping poor gain legal advice

Criminal lawyers in Edmonton are ending a program that offers legal support for people who cannot afford legal representation.

'Effect on access to justice ... will be obvious and immediate,' lawyers say

Lawyers in Alberta are withdrawing from a project that helped the poor win legal assistance saying the province is not doing its share in funding legal aid services. (CBC )

Criminal lawyers in Edmonton are terminating a program that offers support for people who cannot afford legal representation.

"Having provided this service to prop up an unsupported legal aid system for the last twelve months, our membership has determined that it is no longer able, or willing, to continue doing so," said a joint news release from the Criminal Trial Lawyers Association and the Criminal Defence Lawyers.

"Unfortunately, the effect on access to justice and the efficient administration of our court system will be obvious and immediate."

The Missing Advocate Project helps people charged with serious crimes to obtain court-appointed representation.

The lawyers say because the legal aid program in Alberta is so underfunded, people without means are routinely turned away as ineligible for legal representation.

As part of the project, lawyers appeal to judges to order the government to provide a lawyer within a reasonable time or stay the charges altogether.

The lawyers' news release noted the problems started under the previous Conservative government.  Under former premier Jim Prentice, the province only "grudgingly" directed Legal Aid Alberta to appoint counsel when it was "faced with the public embarrassment of hundreds of criminal prosecutions being stayed."

However, the lawyers say the funding remains an inadequate stop gap and they have had enough.

"The many lawyers involved in providing this service to the public have done so without remuneration, and often at considerable expense to themselves and, at times, their families," the release said.

The lawyers said they are hopeful the new NDP government will properly fund Legal Aid Alberta.

Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley said the legal aid program is being reviewed to address the problems, possibly involving interim measures initially.

The current economic downturn has caused additional pressures on the legal aid system, she said.

"We certainly understand it's a problem and the government needs to provide services to vulnerable Albertans," Ganley said.

The Missing Advocate Project helped nearly 900 people last year.

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