Nfld. & Labrador

Limiting choice of lawyers for Legal Aid clients attempt to control costs: justice minister

The justice minister says allowing Legal Aid clients to choose their lawyers is a huge expense, but a St. John's defence lawyer says people should have that right.

Defence lawyer says clients should have a choice for the biggest decision of their lives

Andrew Parsons says the choice perpetuates 'myth' that lawyers in private practice are better than Legal Aid lawyers. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

Newfoundland and Labrador's justice minister says a Legal Aid option allowing clients accused of murder and manslaughter to seek private counsel has resulted in "unmanageable, uncontrollable expense" that government has no say over.

Andrew Parsons said that is why government is seeking an amendment to Legal Aid legislation removing the choice.

"Ten years ago, the previous administration brought in this clause, and we're now the only jurisdiction in Canada, except for Quebec, that allows it, where if you're charged with these certain offences you get your choice of counsel and it's paid for by Legal Aid or, essentially, taxpayers," Parsons told Central Morning on Wednesday.

In many cases — Parsons said he thinks the majority — people opt for a lawyer outside of the Legal Aid system.

"This can be quite expensive. Right now, we're on the books for, the liability for the current ones we have, is about $1.5 to $2 million."

Government has 'no say' over costs

Parsons said he's not sure why the clause was ever introduced.

"I think there was some talk about making the justice system more efficient or quicker, which I don't know if that was borne out in the end," he said.

"Not only does it allow for, in many cases, an unmanageable, uncontrollable expense that we have absolutely no say over, what it's done, I think, is perpetuate a myth that Legal Aid lawyers are not as good as private counsel, and there's nothing that could be more false than that."

An amendment in 2008 allowed Legal Aid clients, who were charged with murder or manslaughter, to choose either a lawyer employed by the Legal Aid Commission or one in private practice. (CBC)

Costs can escalate for the most serious cases, said Parsons.

"It's not just, in these serious cases, one Crown counsel and one defence; it's two Crowns and two defence counsels," he said.

"So when you add it up, we have two private counsel, they're allowed to bill 200 hours each at a rate of $135 an hour, plus any court time. I mean, it's a significant expense."

Parsons said the amendment would not affect people who are currently using private lawyers.

Should be choice, defence lawyer says

Criminal defence lawyer Mike King has taken issue with Parsons, saying it affects people whose liberty is on the line.

"The legislation places a limitation on the choice a person has with respect to perhaps the most important decision they'll have to make in their life."

King agreed that Legal Aid lawyers are just as capable as private defenders, saying they are "some of the most effective lawyers" he knows.

Mike King is a defence lawyer based out of St. John's. (CBC)

But it all comes down to trust, King said, and clients should have the right to choose a lawyer they mesh with.

People are not getting rich off these cases.- Mike King, defence lawyer

He also questioned if it will save any money, since his understanding is that Legal Aid is already carrying a heavy caseload.

"We are probably going to need additional Legal Aid lawyers hired," King said. "That will also involve a significant increase in cost to the government. So either way, you have to pay for the work to be done."

While he acknowledged his firm — Sullivan, Breen, King — has a financial interest in keeping these cases, he said most firms only get about half their regular rate from taking on Legal Aid clients.

"People are not getting rich off these cases."

With files from Central Morning Show and Dan MacEachern