The associations representing criminal lawyers in Alberta say the justice minister in that province is doing “damage to the administration of justice” and should resign.
Recently Alberta’s minister of justice and solicitor general, Jonathan Denis, said the province would look at an increase in funding for legal aid for next year if the federal government wouldn’t fund a bump to the budget. But according to a report in the Edmonton Journal, he told a CTV news reporter: “If we are going to give legal aid additional funds, I want it to go toward increasing the eligibility requirement and not more money for criminal defence lawyers.”
Denis made the comment as a group called Mothers in Support of Fair Trials was protesting the fact current legal aid funding levels have denied subsidized lawyers to those receiving Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped.
In response, the association representing criminal trial lawyers in Alberta sent a letter yesterday to Premier Jim Prentice asking for Denis to step down.
“Who do you think is providing the services to legal aid? It’s not the Crown prosecutors. It is criminal defence,” says Shannon Prithipaul, president of the Criminal Trial Lawyers Association based in Edmonton.
Denis wasn’t available for comment today, according to his spokeswoman, Jessica Jacobs-Mino.
Prithipaul says there is a list of reasons why Denis should resign. Lawyers who accept legal aid cases make $84 an hour, a rate that hasn’t changed in six years.
“This was the cherry on the top of the sundae. If you asked a civil lawyer to work for $84 an hour, I think they would laugh. We have lawyers with 20-25 years experience working for $84 an hour.”
The list of issues Alberta’s criminal lawyers have with Denis is getting longer and defence counsel are “totally ticked off,” according to Prithipaul.
“If they want to start a war with defence counsel they may get it and they may really regret it,” she says. “He’s suggesting that defence counsel are the problem when they are not. With those kind of comments, it’s our submission he is bringing the administration of justice into disrepute.”
Alan Pearse of the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association calls Denis “a train wreck” who’s “biding his time.”
“He’s been awful on the traffic unit reforms. He couldn’t care less. I’ve never seen a less effective justice minister,” says Pearse. “This is the last straw. We have sent so many letters to him.”
Prithipaul adds that Denis has previously said the government was going to “pick and choose” which Rowbotham applications the government would actually fund but then claimed it was a misunderstanding.
“He has been purposely starving the legal aid system and now it appears that there has been a policy to keep defence counsel working at abysmally low rates for quite a long time. That’s a real concern,” she says. “He doesn’t seem to really care about real justice.”
Denis has also said to the benchers of the Law Society of Alberta that he had extended an invitation to the CTLA to speak with him about legal aid but that he had never received a response from them.
“We were very troubled by that and we got back to him with a clarification letter indicating if we had received an invitation we would have obviously wanted to respond,” says Prithipaul.
In response to the concerns, Denis said: “Our first priority is ensuring these important services are accessible to Albertans who need them. As stated in the premier’s mandate letter, legal aid funding remains a priority of our government, and as we determine appropriate funding levels, we will do so with the intention of making sure the eligibility requirements for legal aid extend its reach to Albertans who need it.
“The comments made by the CDLA and the CTLA misrepresent my ongoing commitment to Legal Aid Alberta. While Alberta does fund about 80 per cent of the program, legal aid is, and has always been, a shared funding responsibility that includes not just the provinces but the federal government. I will continue to advocate for additional federal funding when I attend next month’s federal-provincial-territorial justice ministers' meeting, alongside my provincial counterparts who face similar legal aid funding challenges. Should the federal government fail to increase its funding proportional to our own, then our department will examine all our options as a part of the budget process for the coming year. ”
Update Sept. 24: Comments from Denis added.