Groups representing lawyers in Calgary and Edmonton are setting up a toll-free hotline to help Albertans denied legal aid obtain coverage via court orders.
The Calgary Criminal Defence Lawyersâ€™ Association and its sister organization said the phone line is a way to force the government into covering legal costs for more low-income Albertans if itâ€™s unwilling to increase funding for the provinceâ€™s legal aid program.
The CDLA and Edmontonâ€™s Criminal Trial Lawyersâ€™ Association been calling on the provincial government to increase its funding to Legal Aid Alberta, which helps cover legal costs for low-income Albertans.
A funding crunch has prompted the program to tighten its eligibility requirements to the point where people receiving Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped canâ€™t qualify for assistance.
However, an Edmonton provincial judge issued an order compelling Legal Aid Alberta to provide representation for three separate accused who had previously been rejected because their AISH benefits put their incomes above the current eligibility requirements.
Initially, there was concern the ruling would place additional stress on Legal Aid Albertaâ€™s budget, but Alberta Justice and Solicitor General said last week it will give the program extra funding to cover the trio and any additional court-ordered lawyers.
In a news release Thursday, the CDLA said the governmentâ€™s decision is more costly and less efficient than increasing base funding to the legal aid program.
â€œSurprisingly, the minister is prepared to simply add temporary stop-gap funding when these applications are made. That response will cost taxpayers more than the simple and fair response â€” properly funding the legal aid plan in the first place,â€� said the news release.
Legal aidâ€™s main source of funding is the provincial government, which is providing $48 million this year.
Justice Minister Jonathan Denis has previously said the federal government must increase its share of funding, which has been unchanged since 2005.
The provincial contribution has increased since 2005, when it was $20.2 million, but has remained unchanged since 2011.
Denis said the province will increase its funding to legal aid in next yearâ€™s budget â€” but has not specified a dollar figure.
However, the lawyersâ€™ groups said the current situation demands more dollars now.
â€œIt is alarming in a free and democratic society that the minister of justice is content to see basic human rights such as the right to a fair trial withheld from the poor until they bring an application in court, assuming theyâ€™re able to figure out how to do so,â€� the CDLA news release said.
To help people make an application, the lawyers groups have set up a toll-free number, 1-844-441-9957, that people who have been denied legal aid coverage can call for free advice on how to make a court application to get coverage.
The groups will distribute the phone number in courtrooms and have set up a website to draw attention to their campaign, Missingadvocate.org.
Representatives from the CDLA are holding a news conference in Calgary on Thursday afternoon.
More to come….