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Job action by Alberta legal aid lawyers ends after government hikes rate 25 per cent

Alberta’s defence lawyers have voted to end months of job action after the government announced an interim increase to funding for legal aid.

Alberta Justice Minister Tyler Shandro announced Wednesday the government is hiking the amount of money it will pay for lawyers serving people who have trouble affording legal counsel. Beginning Jan. 1, the interim rate is to increase from $100 to $125 per hour.

“We would like to thank Minister Shandro for sitting down with our associations to understand our concerns,” Kim Arial, secretary of the CDLA and a criminal defence lawyer in Calgary, said Thursday.

“We are grateful for all of his efforts in securing this much-needed increase, which demonstrates his commitment to a properly-funded legal aid system in Alberta.”

Organizations representing lawyers in Edmonton, Calgary, Red Deer and southern Alberta launched job action on Aug. 8 and have largely refused to accept new legal aid cases since Sept. 26.

The lawyers were demanding both an increase in rates paid on legal aid cases and for eligibility requirements to be changed so that more Albertans qualify for help.

Members of the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association in Calgary, the Criminal Trial Lawyers Association in Edmonton, the Red Deer Criminal Defence Lawyers Association and the Southern Alberta Defence Lawyers Association voted Wednesday night to resume normal work.

“Everybody is quite optimistic that this is something that is going to lead us toward what we’ve been advocating for. That’s why we’re calling this a good faith demonstration,” Arial said in an interview.

Arial acknowledges the job action caused significant backlogs in criminal courts across the province. But she said the groups look forward to participating in the ongoing review of all aspects of legal aid funding and want to ensure all low-income Albertans can access the legal representation they need.

“We think that there’s still a lot of work to do, in particular the financial eligibility guidelines. That was something else we’ve really been pushing for. We understand that’s a little bit more of a complex assessment that needs some more work,” she said.

Arial said discussions in the new year will also include a final determination of the hourly rate for legal aid.

“The associations look forward to continuing our discussions with the government of Alberta and will continue to push for a fair and equitable tariff.”

Shandro approved a tariff increase in October from $92.40 to $100 an hour due to a rise in federal funding. He had asked the lawyers to wait for the results of a comprehensive review of the legal aid system and said the latest increase makes Alberta legal aid lawyers the fourth-highest paid in Canada.

“I want to thank all legal aid lawyers for their patience and advocacy as we have worked our way through the review. Our commitment to review all aspects of legal aid funding remains in place and will be completed in the new year,” Shandro said in a written statement Wednesday.

Arial said it was a difficult decision to take the job action. She said the backlog in the courts won’t clear up right away.

“There are impacts and unfortunately it’s likely that these are going to continue to be felt for a long time,” she said.

“A lot of people couldn’t access justice over the last few months because of this job stoppage and now trying to get that back is going to be quite a bit of work and going to take a while.”

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