Alberta lawyers’ group applauds new legal aid money in NDP budget, says it will address ‘serious problems’

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An increase in legal aid funding in the Alberta government’s budget last week is earning a positive response from a lawyers’ association in the province.

“It is an important first step to stabilize legal aid,” Kelly Dawson, president of the Criminal Trial Lawyers’ Association (CTLA), told Global News on Monday. “Their budget for last year, 2016-17, was in the order of $67 million in terms of the government’s contribution – they do have other sources of revenue but the government, by far, is the largest. And this year’s budget provides for, I believe, $81.4 million.”

The CTLA issued a statement Monday, suggesting the funding increase will help to keep cases from being thrown out because of trial delays and help to rebuild confidence in the justice system.

“Together with enhanced funding for Crown Prosecution and Court services, this additional funding will provide some level of short-term stabilization for our criminal justice system at a time when it is confronting serious problems; trial delay, timely and affordable access to independent legal assistance, and the erosion of due process protections are just some of these challenges,” the statement said.

Earlier this year, Alberta stayed 15 criminal cases at once, including ones involving assault with a weapon, impaired driving and assaulting a peace officer because the Supreme Court of Canada has set a ceiling of 18 months of delay for cases in the provincial court, and 30 months for cases in Superior court, from the time the charge is laid until the end of the case. If proceedings drag on longer, it’s considered a violation of the rights of the accused.

READ MORE: Alberta murder case thrown out over trial delays; experts warn system on verge of collapse

Watch below: In February 2017, we learned 15 cases in Alberta won’t go to court because the Crown prosecutor’s office is stretched too thin. As Vinesh Pratap reports, concern about cases being dropped is growing.

Dawson suggested he believes inadequate funding of legal aid plays a major role – directly and indirectly – in trial delays.

“All the time that may be lost in terms of getting to trial while we wait for a lawyer to be appointed contributes to trial delay,” he said. “Lack of counsel for serious matters and having self-represented defendants causes a large amount of delay, the trials take much longer, there’s less court time available as a result.”

In 2015, the CTLA and the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association told the Alberta government their members would stop providing a volunteer program that helps poor people or people with disabilities apply for legal aid.

READ MORE: Alberta lawyers to stop helping poor, disabled apply for legal aid

“We remain hopeful that our new government recognizes the severity of the situation facing the legal-aid system in our province, and will take immediate and decisive measures to ensure that Legal Aid Alberta is provided with the independence and the stable, adequate and predictable funding it needs,” the letter read.

READ MORE: Alberta launches review of legal aid program struggling to keep up with demand

“It was around that time… that the government shortly thereafter started to kick in some more money because they agreed ultimately that the financial eligibility guidelines were far too low so since that time, for the most part, the need for a lot of court applications has been eliminated,” Dawson said of the decision to end the program. “We ended it because we were tired of doing the government’s job for them.”

Dawson said the NDP’s funding increase for legal aid is a positive step, but he hopes the province will commit to a long-term funding arrangement for legal aid.

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