Lawyers slam legal aid shortfall

Lawyers in Alberta are accusing the province of denying low income people access to legal help.

Lawyers in Alberta are accusing the province of denying low income people access to legal help.

The Criminal Trial Lawyers' Association says more than 6,000 of the poorest people in the province are being denied legal aid. Legal aid provides lawyers for people who cannot afford one.

"This is just pure 'Let's score political points to say we're cutting back money on criminals,'" said Brian Hurley, a defence lawyer in Edmonton and past president of the CTLA.

Before last spring, a person earning less than $21,000 a year could apply for legal aid. Now the income level is almost half that — $11,000.

"You're cutting $10 million out of the legal aid budget, or you're refusing to fund legal aid that $10 million to make it work," said Hurley.

Lawyers say legal aid funding dropped dramatically last spring when the Alberta Law Foundation slashed its share. The foundation uses investment income to fund the program, but that income bottomed out during the recession. 

Hurley said the government should be making up the difference.  

Improper funding may cost the province even more, said Hurley. People without lawyers often end up representing themselves, clogging up the courts with unnecessary and longer trials. 

But Justice Minister Alison Redford said recent changes made to the legal aid system were made in consultation with the legal aid society.

"I want to make it very clear that if there is a person who is in criminal court, who is charged and needs representation, legal aid funds that," Redford said.