Source: Facebook

Low-income Albertans may soon have to represent themselves in court, as the provincial government chose not to renew the legal aid governance agreement. The denial “ensures complete breakdown of the province’s justice system,” according to some law organizations. 

This stark warning was issued by the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association of Calgary, the Criminal Trial Lawyers Association in Edmonton, the Southern Alberta Defence Lawyers’ Association, and the Red Deer Criminal Lawyers Association. 

The lawyer organizations said in a post shared on X that they were “shocked and appalled to receive news from Legal Aid Alberta today about the government’s failure to sign the new Legal Aid Governance Agreement.”

Some form of a governance agreement has been in place for over 50 years, allowing Legal Aid Alberta to provide legal services for low-income and vulnerable Albertans. The most recent version was signed in 2019 by Legal Aid Alberta, the Minister of Justice, and the Law Society of Alberta.

“The government’s unceremonious cancellation of the scheduled signing of that agreement was followed by silence before a last-minute ultimatum that would fundamentally change who controlled the delivery of legal aid services in Alberta,” wrote the four organizations.

The existing agreement expired on June 30. Without a new agreement, Legal Aid Alberta will no longer be permitted to issue certificates to assign defence lawyers for cases beyond July 9. This would result in many low-income Albertans having to represent themselves in court, potentially leading to further delays or charges being dropped.

A 2016 Supreme Court of Canada ruling set a ceiling of 18 months between the charges and trial in a provincial court without a preliminary inquiry, or 30 months in other cases before some charges are dropped.

Based on Legal Aid Alberta’s 2023-24 Annual Report, 37,000 Albertans applied for legal services, and 33,500 of them were approved. Thousands more were assisted by Legal Aid Alberta counsel in court. Legal Aid Alberta’s bail lawyers completed more than 30,000 hearings. The average person receiving assistance makes less than $10,000 per year.

“Legal Aid Alberta helps families going through separation and divorce, children who have been removed from their homes, refugee claimants, and adults and youth involved with the criminal justice system. We provide representation at bail hearings, free duty counsel services at provincial courts, and the legal assistance people need to escape family violence,” said the publicly-funded, nonprofit organization. 

Gianpaolo Panusa, CEO and President of Legal Aid Alberta said in an email to lawyers with the organization that Legal Aid Alberta had been negotiating with the provincial government and its Ministry of Justice actively for several months.

“Despite the good faith efforts of LAA and the Law Society in the negotiation process, the Ministry suddenly halted negotiations and terminated the Governance Agreement,” he wrote.

If the service halts on July 9, the four lawyer organizations warned that the fundamental principle of justice separating a person prosecuting an individual and a person conducting their defence will be destroyed. 

“This will inevitably trigger a complete breakdown of an already overtaxed and under-resourced system. The impact will be felt more sharply by those overrepresented in the criminal justice system and more likely to be financially disadvantaged, such as those who are LGBTQ2S+, racialized, and mentally vulnerable,” they wrote. 

True North reached out to the Ministry of Justice, Legal Aid Alberta, and the Law Society of Alberta, but received no reply.