As lawyers escalate job action to demand reform of Legal Aid Alberta (LAA) funding, the organization itself is now joining in on calls for more provincial funding.
Members of four defence lawyer organizations along with family lawyers that take on cases for Albertans eligible for legal aid support staged a walkout at courthouses in Edmonton, Red Deer and Calgary on Friday.
The Criminal Defence Lawyers Association in Calgary, the Criminal Trial Lawyers Association in Edmonton, the Southern Alberta Defence Lawyers' Association and the Red Deer Criminal Lawyers Association represent hundreds of lawyers.
LAA receives provincial funding that pays for lawyers for Albertans who qualify for its services.
The lawyers have been calling for an increase in the rates paid to lawyers who take on legal aid cases, arguing that the province has fallen behind other jurisdictions.
In August, job action began when lawyers started to refuse some new legal aid files.
On Wednesday, the associations' members voted to ramp up action and will stop accepting any new legal aid cases starting Monday.
That means individuals charged with criminal offences that range from theft to homicide who can't afford a lawyer may find themselves unable to get one.
Some family lawyers who do legal aid work also plan to refuse new cases.
"If the minister allows this to go on long enough, it's going to create a COVID-like bottleneck because no trials are going to be set, unrepresented people are going to languish in docket court not knowing what they should do with their charges," said Danielle Boisvert, president of the Criminal Trial Lawyers' Association in Edmonton.
She said lawyers will continue to work with existing clients getting legal aid funding.
Boisvert said it's unlikely judges will force a case forward if someone doesn't have proper representation. She said judges will probably end up approving more Rowbotham applications — a process whereby the court can appoint legal representation.
She said the funding for lawyers appointed this way ultimately comes from LAA.
The lawyers are also calling for changes to eligibility for legal aid, arguing that the income cutoff is far too low and leaves many Albertans unable to access or afford a lawyer.
Legal Aid Alberta joins calls for increased funding
In an about-face from its previous stance, LAA sent an email to its roster lawyers on Thursday stating that it now supports a "principled increase" to the tariff rate paid to lawyers doing legal aid work.
Earlier this month, LAA president John Panusa wrote an editorial attacking the roster lawyers' job action and stating that the organization already has sufficient funds to support its services.
The editorial angered some in the legal community, prompting calls for Panusa's resignation. But according to a statement posted on its website Thursday, the LAA is supportive of some calls for change.
The statement says the LAA board of directors met with the CEO and executive leadership team on Wednesday and ratified a "statement of principles" in response to the job action by roster lawyers.
"There has not been an increase to the LAA tariff since 2015 and any increase should be responsive to increases in inflation in the last seven years," the statement says.
"We believe that the range of a tariff increase should, at minimum, be guided by the tariff rate for lawyers in Ontario and British Columbia."
It also states that LAA is concerned that eligibility for legal aid services — and what services are covered — has lagged since 2015 and fallen behind other Canadian jurisdictions.
The statement says that a person making $20,021 per year is eligible but would lose that eligibility if their income increased by just $100 a month.
However, the statement also emphasizes that LAA continues to support the Legal Aid Governance Agreement enacted in 2019, and states that it's provided a sustainable and predictable funding model.
LAA is focused on serving Albertans and minimizing service disruptions, a Legal Aid Alberta spokesperson told CBC News in an email Friday. But the organization won't know until Monday what the impact will be if roster lawyers stop accepting new certificates.
During a news conference Friday, Justice Minister Tyler Shandro said the government and Legal Aid Alberta are monitoring the situation, but anyone who needs to access a lawyer through legal aid will still be able to get one.
A modernization review of Legal Aid Alberta, which began in May, is still underway and will wrap up in October, he said. Shandro has indicated that the tariff paid to lawyers will be considered as part of the review.
"To take that one part and to make a decision now would undermine the whole review," he said.
Boisvert said Friday afternoon that Shandro's statement changes nothing and that the job action will proceed as planned on Monday.
She said the lawyers want the province to commit to immediate action.