Legal Aid Alberta set to cease operating amid dispute with province

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‘We’re very concerned about the vulnerable Albertans who are going to be impacted by this’

Published Jul 02, 2024  •  Last updated 10 hours ago  •  3 minute read

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Legal Aid AlbertaAround 40 defence lawyers were picketing outside the Edmonton Law Courts on Sept.2, 2022, in support of improved legal aid funding. Photo by Jonny Wakefield /Postmedia

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The organization that provides legal representation to vulnerable Albertans says it’s set to essentially cease operations next week after the provincial government called off negotiations to renew its governance agreement which expired over the long weekend.

Legal Aid Alberta primarily assists disadvantaged persons and describes itself as a publicly funded, non-profit organization that provides affordable legal services in family law, domestic violence, child welfare, immigration, and youth and adult criminal defence.

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Its governance agreement expired on June 30 and Legal Aid Alberta said Tuesday that it will no longer be able to issue certificates as of 4:30 p.m. on July 9. Certificates represent a legal file assigned to a Legal Aid Alberta lawyer.

Board chairman Ryan Callioux described the situation of operating without an agreement as “complicated and uncertain.”

“We’re very concerned about the vulnerable Albertans who are going to be impacted by this,” he said in an interview with Postmedia.

“We’re unclear on why the government has chosen to take this direction. They have not provided any rationale for what they’re doing.”

Legal Aid Alberta is independent from government but answers to the minister of justice and the Law Society of Alberta and is funded by the federal and provincial governments, as well as the Alberta Law Foundation.

Callioux said Legal Aid Alberta reached out to the province in March 2023 to begin work on renewing the agreement.

Negotiations continued through early 2024 with a further meeting in May scheduled to iron out any final issues before the Alberta justice ministry cancelled the meeting without explanation, Callioux said.

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He said he received a letter from the ministry on June 27 indicating the government wanted to take a different path and imposed a July 1 deadline to sign a new grant agreement that Legal Aid Alberta says represents “a significant departure” from the expired governance agreement.

That agreement would remove the Law Society of Alberta from its role in Legal Aid Alberta and would “significantly curtail” Legal Aid Alberta’s independence and funding, according to Callioux.

“The grant agreement is skewed heavily in favour of the minister, with almost no meaningful obligations on the part of the minister, including any obligation to continue funding,” he stated, saying Legal Aid Alberta is now in an “untenable situation.”

“It is critical that whatever the format, the independence of Legal Aid Alberta must be sacrosanct. If it is not, the justice system will suffer significantly.”

Legal Aid Alberta is calling on the government to return to the bargaining table to resolve the situation as soon as possible.

The office of Justice Minister Mickey Amery said in a statement that it is important to balance access to high-quality legal aid with being “responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars.”

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“We are confident the funds we have already provided Legal Aid Alberta are sufficient to maintain a strong roster of lawyers as well as day-to-day operations in the coming months as we finalize a new grant agreement.”

It describes the proposed grant agreement as interim funding and claims that Legal Aid Alberta has a $82.1 million cash balance.

Legal Aid Alberta has said it has a legal duty to preserve remaining funds to pay employees, service providers and vendors.

In August 2022, defence lawyers in Edmonton, Calgary and southern Alberta began an escalating job action prompted by a lack of new funding. Three months later, the government agreed to a 25 per cent pay increase for legal aid lawyers.

More recently, the province announced an increase to the qualifying income threshold for no-cost legal aid in February, up to $30,000.

In 2023-24, Legal Aid Alberta received 37,000 applications for legal aid services with about 33,500 of those approved along with thousands more assisted in courts by a Legal Aid Alberta duty counsel, according to the organization’s annual report.

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— with files from Jonny Wakefield

[email protected]

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