Edmonton

Dozens of lawyers off Legal Aid Alberta roster for not signing new deal, defence lawyer says

An alleged 100 senior lawyers have refused to sign a new contract with Legal Aid Alberta, because they say it was not negotiated and includes unacceptable terms.

New contract ‘shocking and disrespectful,’ says Edmonton defence lawyer Deborah Hatch

In December, 12 senior lawyers from Edmonton and Calgary sent a letter to the Legal Aid Alberta president, asking him to negotiate and make changes to the proposed contract. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

For nearly 25 years, Edmonton defence lawyer Deborah Hatch has taken on clients through legal aid.

But as of May 1, she has been removed from the Legal Aid Alberta (LAA) roster because she refused to sign a new contract. 

"I suspect that probably a good 100 lawyers did not sign that contract and were not prepared to do that," Hatch told CBC News. "I know many, many lawyers who were not prepared to sign, that just could not sign a contract that was just this terrible."

Paul Welke, a legal aid lawyer, said he's skeptical that 100 lawyers have refused to sign the new contract. He declined to be more specific, however. 

"Our roster fluctuates on a weekly — if not, monthly — basis," Welke said. "We've got new lawyers joining every month. We have people retiring and leaving every month. So I don't know if we've had a large spike up or down."

LAA said there are currently 1,200 lawyers on its roster. 

Defence lawyer Deborah Hatch has refused to sign a contract with Legal Aid Alberta. (Hatch Law)

In December, Hatch and 11 other senior lawyers from Edmonton and Calgary sent a letter to the LAA president, imploring him to negotiate and to make changes to the proposed contract. 

The letter quoted a proposed policy she found especially offensive: "LAA may suspend me or remove me from its roster at any time, without notice or fault."

"Anyone would realize that a term like that is grossly unfair," Hatch said. "It's shocking and so disrespectful." 

When LAA responded to the lawyers, Hatch said they were told there would be no negotiations and that if the lawyers decided to leave, they would be "sad to see them go". 

"If I were running Legal Aid, I'd be very afraid to lose that many senior lawyers all at once," Hatch said. "I'd be very, very deeply concerned for what that means for the state of justice in Alberta."

Late last year Hatch received a phone call from someone she described as being in a position of power, who suggested that she should tone down the public concerns she was raising about the LAA contract, she said.

I'd be very afraid to lose that many senior lawyers and all at once.- Edmonton defence lawyer Deborah Hatch

The caller allegedly told her they'd be willing to write a letter of support for her to be nominated as a Queen's Counsel, if she stopped making so much noise. 

"I found that quite offensive, to be frank," Hatch said. "I'm especially not interested when someone suggests that it's tied to staying silent about something that's important."

Hatch said she did not ask for her name to be included for a possible QC appointment.

No more money in legal aid budget

Last Monday, Alberta Justice Minister Tyler Shandro announced that Crown prosecutors would get a pay raise after they threatened to go on strike.

The justice ministry promised to boost prosecutors' salaries to bring them in line with other provinces, after an analysis of market rates across Canada revealed that Alberta prosecutors' pay was noticeably lower.

LAA has announced it will be modernizing and streamlining its tariff, which is defined as a document that describes the fees, rates, and guidelines a lawyer must follow when billing for legal aid work.

That work will exclude an increase in the $92.40 per hour lawyers are currently allowed to bill, said Welke, the legal aid lawyer. 

Paul Welke is a lawyer with Legal Aid Alberta. (Marc-Julien Objois)

"As of right now, any funding increases haven't really been discussed at this point," Welke said. "Our funding levels are purely the purview of the Ministry of Justice and government of Alberta." 

A government spokesperson did not respond to CBC's request for comment.

"A number of lawyers think that there is going to be a funding increase — which there should be," Hatch said.

CBC News has obtained a copy of a letter sent to LAA lawyers earlier this week that promises to simplify system-related paperwork and to provide "proper recognition based on the complexity of your work." 

This could mean increased hourly rates for more senior counsel, said Danielle Boisvert, president of the Criminal Trial Lawyers' Association.

Boisvert has been told that the overall budget is not changing, she said. But she hopes streamlining may leave more money on the table for lawyer compensation.

Hatch worries about the impact all this will have on clients who rely on legal aid.

"This is a fine system for those who can afford to pay for lawyers themselves," Hatch said. 

"For those who can't, this is a system that's not being properly supported."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Janice Johnston

Court and crime reporter

Janice Johnston is an investigative journalist with CBC Edmonton who has covered Alberta courts and crime for more than three decades. She won a national Radio Television Digital News Association award in 2016 for her coverage of the trial of a 13-year-old Alberta boy who was acquitted of killing his abusive father. You can reach her at janice.johnston@cbc.ca.

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