Source: Legal Aid Alberta

Defence lawyers working for Legal Aid Alberta (LAA) have ceased taking on new legal aid cases as of Sept. 26. Hundreds of lawyers across the province have raised a number of reasons why they cannot continue legal aid work, including a lack of adequate pay, lack of resources, and chronic lack of government funding for legal aid, which makes up roughly 88 per cent of Legal Aid Alberta’s budget. The revocation of legal services first began Aug. 8, but the government’s postponement of discussions on funding increases for legal aid until 2023 has forced legal aid lawyers to take further job action. This represents a serious escalation in Alberta’s growing labour struggle against the United Conservative Party’s (UCP) austerity, and a clear example of the bankruptcy of the legal system under capitalism. 

The UCP’s austerity is not only the defining feature of their reign, but the one they are most proud of. While they lay off and privatize tens of thousands of jobs in healthcare and education, and pander to the bosses with handouts and tax breaks, they brag about their budget surplus of $13.2 billion. All it took was a pound of flesh and a high-priced barrel of oil! Far from being limited to one sector, the contradictions of capitalism have sent shockwaves through the province—including to the legal system.

Legal Aid Goes Unpaid

Legal Aid Alberta offers free or reduced-cost services to mainly poor, working youth and adults. LAA clients must make under $20k a year to qualify for their services, but the average client in 2021 had an average annual income of under $10,000 because of how stretched funding and resources are. This means that most minimum wage workers would not even qualify for legal aid under the current arrangement. Despite the inadequacies of the program, the UCP tore up proposed Legal Aid Alberta funding increases as soon as they got into office, knocking provincial funding from a high of $104.1 million (2019) to a mere $82.3 million (2022). 

Defence lawyers on the Legal Aid Alberta roster are not living lavish and luxurious lives. Lawyers don’t do legal aid to get rich. In Alberta, public defence lawyers have one of the country’s lowest hourly pay rates, sitting flat for many services around $92.40—a rate that has remained unchanged for seven years, and often barely covers legal fees, trial costs, office rent, and a multitude of other expenses lawyers need to pay.  Because of the low rate, case volume becomes the focus—not quality of legal representation. Services like these can only go unfunded for so long before they start to break down. 

Lack of funding is directly responsible for shrinking eligibility and caseloads, which have become nearly unsustainable for the already-stretched roster of lawyers working legal aid cases. Anyone who has worked a job knows that more responsibilities with less resources is a recipe for burnout and stress. Defence lawyers also recognize this and have taken a stand against the UCP, until funding is increased and job conditions are improved.

“Heads buried in the sand”

Danielle Boisvert, president of the Criminal Trial Lawyers Association (CTLA), points out that  “when a system like this is underfunded, people stop wanting to work for it”. In an interview we conducted with Caitlin Bullerkist, a defence lawyer working for King’s Defence, this sentiment was echoed. She explained how a completely outdated pay and tariff structure and years of funding shortfalls has stretched the system to its limits. With fewer lawyers able to represent clients, there has been an increase in self-representation—which is not only a direct barrier to accessing a fair and just trial, but has added millions in costs for excess court time and fees. In an April 2021 report by Canadian Bar Association member G.K. Fellows, it was estimated that increased funding of even $4-6 million for LAA would save between $11-22 million a year in costs for self-representation. 

Joining CTLA members taking job action are the Criminal Defense Lawyers Association (CDLA), the Southern Alberta Defense Lawyers Association (SADLA), and the Red Deer Criminal Defense Lawyers Association (RDCDLA). In an Aug. 11 press release, representatives from these four organizations stated that “if Minister Shandro and CEO Panusa continue to bury their heads in the sand, our members will continue to withdraw legal services”. On Sept. 2, CTLA and CDLA members staged a walkout outside of Edmonton and Calgary courthouses, and another province-wide protest happened on Sept. 23, along with courtroom walkouts in Edmonton, Red Deer, and Calgary. 

Job action is widely supported by the rank and file of legal associations across the province, including the provincial and federal crown prosecutors. Even the state’s lawyers are aware of the deep issues within the legal system in Alberta, and share a justified hatred for the UCP’s gutting of the public sector. Just months ago, the provincial crown prosecutors threatened strike action over similar claims of backlogs, job vacancies, and the UCP’s austerity agenda—a threat which won them increased pay! On the other hand, the president of LAA, John Panusa, has scandalously become Shandro’s biggest cheerleader, claiming in a Calgary Herald editorial that current legal aid funding “is OK”. In the same editorial, he called Albertans seeking legal aid “marginalized people… caught in the crossfire”, never mind the fact that legal aid lawyers taking job action are fighting for a better legal aid system, which is in the best interests of those “marginalized people” Panusa claims this hurts. Unsurprisingly, legal aid lawyers saw this statement for what it was, and have even called for his resignation, which prompted Panusa to reverse his statement and put forward tepid support for legal aid lawyers fighting for change.

What can we do?

As journalist Kim Siever recently pointed out, inflation in Alberta has risen by 17.96 per cent from 2015-2022. Most people are not making 17 per cent more at their jobs than they were seven years ago. New contracts negotiated this year (such as the HSAA, UNA, and AUPE) have given meagre, if any, pay increases, meaning inflation is hurting even more! Wages are stagnating for workers in every sector across the country, from nurses, to Starbucks and Amazon workers, to the recent strike of liquor and cannabis retail workers organized with the BCGEU. Legal Aid Lawyers have taken inspiring first steps, conducting a picket outside of Edmonton and Calgary courthouses on Sept. 2, as well as forming a unity committee for legal aid lawyers across the province to coordinate actions and demands. These actions must continue, and involve as many layers of the legal system as possible. In our interview, Caitlin Bullerkist rightfully pointed out that work stoppages are not meant to hurt legal aid clients, contrary to what the corporate media or the UCP might say, and argued: “Job action doesn’t affect current legal aid clients, [and will] help them by increasing access and funding to the legal system”. If anyone is to blame for a broken system, it’s the UCP who for years have shaved off funding for the legal system in any way possible. 

Under capitalism, funding cuts means those at the bottom feel the worst of the effects. The vast majority of legal cases dealt with are for non-violent crime, immigration, child welfare, family, and civil issues. These are not the white collar criminals that get away with fraud, exploitation, and corruption in Calgary skyscrapers every day. These are the everyday victims of capitalist society, and its laws that disproportionately criminalize the poor and blame them for their own conditions of life. In the words of Bertolt Brecht, “the law was made for one thing alone, for the exploitation of those who don’t understand it, or are prevented by naked misery from obeying it.” In other words, the law is not neutral—it is created by and for the ruling class and its representatives, to grease the wheels of production and obscure the real sources of exploitation, misery, and poverty within society.