Alberta’s criminal lawyer groups call for justice minister to step down

EDMONTON – The province’s criminal lawyers groups are calling on Jonathan Denis to step down from his post as justice minister.

The call stems from a comment Denis made at a rally held in Edmonton on Saturday. The eventwas put on by Mothers in Support of Fair Trials, which argues many people aren’t able to receive help from Legal Aid because of under-funding.

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Denis made the following statement in response to the rally:

“The biggest thing I think that is important, is that these are taxpayers dollars. And if we are going to give Legal Aid additional funds, I want it to go towards increasing the money for eligibility requirement; and not more money for criminal defence lawyers.”

The Criminal Defence and Criminal Trial Lawyers Associations say they’re troubled by this comment.

“To say that maybe more funding is warranted ‘but I don’t want it going to criminal defence lawyers,’ shows a real misunderstanding of the independence his office is supposed to have from the Legal Aid Society and defence council,” said Deborah Hatch, former president of the Criminal Trial Lawyers Association.

“If he doesn’t get that then he is not fit to be holding his office and to be minister of justice and the attorney general.”

In a statement released Tuesday afternoon, Denis stressed his “ongoing commitment” to Legal Aid Alberta and said he plans to lobby the federal government to provide additional support for what is supposed to be a shared program.

“While Alberta does fund about 80 per cent of the program, legal aid is, and has always been, a shared funding responsibility,” he wrote. “Should the federal government fail to increase its funding proportional to our own, then our department will examine all our options as a part of the budget process for the coming year.”

But Hatch argues next year will be too late.

“Legal Aid is in a crisis right now. Everyone knows the situation is a crisis. Legal Aid has said it will probably be insolvent by next summer and potentially have to close their doors. So to say that you will look at this in next year’s budget is no answer,” Hatch said.

READ MORE: ‘Inadequate funding’ leads to 2nd resignation at Legal Aid Alberta in 3 months

“We are inviting Premier Jim Prentice to invite Minister Denis to step down,” Hatch said, “and to put someone in his place who is willing and able to address this problem.”

With files from Tom Vernon, Global News

© Shaw Media, 2014

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