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Crown comes to defence of legal aid lawyers taking job action for improved funding

Edmonton Journal logo Edmonton Journal 2022-08-08 Jonny Wakefield
Alberta Crown Attorney's president Dallas Sopko speaks at a news conference on May 2, 2022, in Edmonton, after the Alberta government committed to improved funding and working conditions for Crown prosecutors. The association on Monday issued a statement supporting © Provided by Edmonton Journal Alberta Crown Attorney's president Dallas Sopko speaks at a news conference on May 2, 2022, in Edmonton, after the Alberta government committed to improved funding and working conditions for Crown prosecutors. The association on Monday issued a statement supporting

Crown prosecutors are coming to the defence of their courtroom opponents, the same day as dozens of criminal defence lawyers across the province walked off the job in support of calls for improved legal aid funding.

“Lawyers in the defence bar who represent accused through legal aid deserve fair and competitive compensation,” the Alberta Crown Attorneys’ Association said in a Monday statement calling for a “properly resourced justice system.” 

The statement comes as three associations representing Alberta defence lawyers begin a series of “escalating work stoppages” aimed at securing improved provincial funding for Legal Aid Alberta.

On Aug. 3, the Edmonton Criminal Trial Lawyers’ Association (CTLA), the Calgary Criminal Defence Lawyers’ Association and the Southern Alberta Defence Lawyers’ Association voted to begin two weeks of job action, during which around 100 lawyers agreed to no longer provide specific legal aid services — including appearing as duty counsel in courtrooms and speaking to certain bail applications.

The associations are voluntary membership groups and cannot compel members to strike, but said in a news release last week that at least 100 lawyers agreed to stop taking legal aid work.

On Monday, prosecutor Dallas Sopko said his association supports a “properly funded legal aid system.” But he said that as a Crown prosecutor, he isn’t familiar with the intricacies of legal aid billing and can’t say for certain whether Legal Aid Alberta is properly funded or not.

“Our position on it is we hope that the matter gets resolved as quickly as possible, because it’s necessary for the justice system to work properly,” he said. “And it’s important for everyone to understand the importance of defence counsel and legal aid in the day-to-day operations of the justice system, to ensure there are just outcomes.”

Sopko said Monday afternoon that it is too early to gauge the impact of the defence lawyers’ work stoppage because it had only just begun.

CTLA president Danielle Boisvert, however, said she’s received reports of significant disruptions.

 Danielle Boisvert, head of the Criminal Trial Lawyers’s Association, which is taking job action. © Greg Southam Danielle Boisvert, head of the Criminal Trial Lawyers’s Association, which is taking job action.

Boisvert and other defence lawyers met for two hours Monday with Justice Minister Tyler Shandro and representatives from Legal Aid Alberta.

“They certainly expressed that they’re already feeling the impact of dozens of duty counsel shifts not being filled by private counsel who normally would take those on,” said Boisvert, adding that the overall meeting was “disappointing.”

“They made no commitments today, no promises of additional funding, a suggestion that the funding that was there was adequate to provide Albertans with the level of services that they need.”

“Obviously our organizations disagree with that,” Boisvert said, adding that legal aid lawyers are “overworked and underpaid” and leaving for better opportunities in other provinces and in the Crown’s office.

Shandro previously issued a statement saying a review “to address administrative efficiencies for billing, block fees, and other simplifications” of the Legal Aid Alberta system was underway, but that any increases to the overall budget would have to wait until 2023.

The defence lawyers noted that the province made promises to improve funding just weeks after Crown prosecutors, led by Sopko, made similar threats to strike.

The three defence lawyers’ groups are also asking for changes to Legal Aid Alberta’s financial eligibility guidelines to expand the program to more people.

Last week’s news release said work stoppages will resume Sept. 1-15 if there is no change in the government’s position.

jwakefield@postmedia.com

twitter.com/jonnywakefield

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