Alberta family lawyers to form association amid legal aid job action

Family lawyers are uniting to form a new association to represent those who practise in that area of the justice system.  (Sam Brooks/CBC - image credit)
Family lawyers are uniting to form a new association to represent those who practise in that area of the justice system. (Sam Brooks/CBC - image credit)

As four defence lawyer organizations take job action to demand reform of Legal Aid Alberta (LAA) funding, family lawyers are uniting to form a new association this month to take up the cause.

Since August, lawyers in Alberta have been taking job action with most defence lawyers refusing new legal aid cases. Now, family lawyers are looking to call on LAA to make changes.

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.

Eligibility requirements are also a point of contention, with many lawyers saying the margin is too narrow, making legal aid inaccessible for many who need it.

Justine Fallu, a family lawyer in Edmonton, is taking part in forming the family lawyers association.

Fallu said many family lawyers are frustrated with LAA, and are pushing to form an association to garner support and unity within the field.

"The reality of the situation is there is a large cross section of the Alberta population that simply can't afford a family lawyer and the court is seeing the strain.

"It's frustrating because then it becomes a decision to say, 'am I going to take it pro bono? How much am I going to write off? What do I do about overhead and disbursements?'"

Kaylee Sime, an Edmonton mom, has attempted to get help for her family law case through legal aid.

She says she has not seen her two sons since August pending an ongoing custody battle.

Sime says she submitted her request for a family lawyer on legal aid in August and was told she would have to wait up to a month before a lawyer would be appointed to her case.

Almost four months later, Sime has yet to receive official counsel.

"I don't have access to my kids because I can't access a lawyer," Sime told CBC.

Sime says when she realized family lawyers taking on legal aid cases were difficult to come by, she reached out to the Edmonton Community Legal Centre for advice.

She spoke to a volunteer for an hour who gave her answers to her most imminent questions, took notes for a staff lawyer to review, and filed documents for Sime's docket court appearance.

However, Sime says she will still have to represent herself and cannot have an ongoing rapport with a lawyer.

"I have been putting so much into getting my own representation from legal aid, but that's probably a pipe dream, I'm going to have to continue doing my research based on what I was given from this other lawyer to represent myself," Sime said.

Danielle Boisvert, president of the Criminal Trial Lawyers' Association, said family lawyers have been requesting more resources from LAA since the beginning of the pandemic.

Boisvert said LAA has reduced the number of hours family lawyers could charge per case from 30 to eight in many instances.

"[LAA] are putting people like [Sime] in a severely disadvantaged situation where she can't access the courts and family court is sometimes even more difficult to navigate than Criminal Court," Boisvert said.

In an emailed statement, the Ministry of Justice to the CBC told CBC that ensuring every Albertan has fair and equitable access to the legal system is a priority.

"At this time, we are not aware of any family lawyer associations taking job action…The government has always ensured Legal Aid Alberta has sufficient funding to meet demand for their services, and there have not been any instances of Albertans not accessing family or criminal services due to insufficient funding," spokesperson Ethan Lecavalier-Kidney wrote in the statement.

Unlike criminal cases where Boisvert said judges are likely to end up approving more Rowbotham applications — a process whereby the court can appoint legal representation — people in family court are often left to self-litigate.

Boisvert told CBC that the new family lawyers association should help combine forces for more representation during consultations with LAA.

Fallu says although some family lawyers try to take on legal aid cases as a public service, the majority of the cases fall through the cracks, whether it's due to ineligibility or a lack of lawyers taking on legal aid cases.

The tentative family lawyers' association is set to hold their first town hall on Nov. 22, and Fallu hopes it will be the start of better accessibility for people like Sime.

LAA would not comment on the ongoing job action.