Legal Aid Alberta budget cuts could burden vulnerable Albertans, says Union of Provincial Employees

The recent cuts to crucial public services have sparked public outrage, the union says

Legal Aid Alberta budget cuts could burden vulnerable Albertans, says Union of Provincial Employees

The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees has expressed dismay over $5 million budget cuts to Legal Aid Alberta.

According to a statement released by AUPE on Nov. 15, this revelation is yet another proverbial straw that threatens to break the camel’s back, following the slew of issues that have been plaguing the justice system as of late, such as the backlog of cases, overworked court clerks, and slashed resources allocated to rural police as well as vulnerable Albertans, which include recipients of the Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped.

Ian Savage, head of the Calgary-based Criminal Defence Lawyers Association, has said that people will be constrained to spend about four times more if forced to go through the court system without a lawyer, than if Legal Aid had received proper funding to begin with.

“As a first point of contact for Albertans in crisis, [Legal Aid staff are] the first line of defense for the underserved,” said AUPE Vice-President Susan Slade. “Roll back their working conditions more, that wall of defense is going to come crumbling down.”

The government has said, in an overview of its budget on its official website, “Alberta spends almost $2,500 more per person on public services than other big provinces, but without better results. If we matched the average per capita, Alberta would spend $10 billion less each year.”

The overview goes on to explain that the current allocation is designed to ensure quality and effectiveness in terms of public services. By only spending what it can afford, the government will have more leeway to fund hospitals, continuing care centres, and schools.

AUPE says it does not see the recent organizational shifts, as well as the budget cuts, as things to be celebrated. For them, the cuts represent “a scramble to maintain the top-heavy structure of the organization while the bosses offload any burden caused by the cuts onto them.” 

AUPE noted that these budget cuts were announced at a particularly turbulent time, stating that there had already been a general outcry against the current government’s treatment of crucial public services.

According to the government’s fiscal plan, $1.45 billion has been allocated to the Ministry of Justice and Solicitor General, to equip them with the resources necessary to modernize court processes through digitization, such as by implementing electronic court records, online traffic ticket payment, and other innovative ways to deal with legal disputes.

As the government rationalizes, this allocation will enable the ministry to improve the justice system through hiring more prosecutors, increasing access to drug treatment courts, and providing increased funding to Alberta Law Enforcement Response Teams by up to $50 million within four years. These particular priorities had been proposed following public consultation held to generate ideas on how to combat rural crime issues.

Still, AUPE has expressed worry that the budget cuts to legal aid could ultimately result in a bigger burden for vulnerable Albertans.

In the statement, AUPE also criticized LAA’s recent implementation of the Redesign Program, which has resulted in wage cuts, layoffs, and other organizational shifts. Under the new program, workers at the call centre are paid 18 per cent less despite performing the same amount of work as before, while over in Edmonton, courthouse intake and assessment officers are forced to deal with work spaces which are not only cramped, but also lacking in terms of privacy for clients to share sensitive information.

To address the recent problems under the Redesign Program, AUPE filed a complaint for unfair labour practice with the Alberta Labour Relations Board back in October, the preliminary hearing for which has been set on Dec. 2.

In its statement, AUPE then said that, according to an email from LAA President and Chief Executive Officer Gianpaolo Panusa to around 60 of its members, Panusa had claimed that Justice Minister Schweitzer had praised the Redesign Program as “the type of innovation that is needed in a time of fiscal restraint.”

“[Do] Premier Kenney and Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer think Legal Aid cuts will help?” said the statement.

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