Legal Aid Alberta says province terminated its contract

Legal Aid Alberta, a publicly funded, non-profit organization that provides affordable legal services to disadvantaged Albertans says without an agreement with the province its operations will be forced to cease. (CBC - image credit)
Legal Aid Alberta, a publicly funded, non-profit organization that provides affordable legal services to disadvantaged Albertans says without an agreement with the province its operations will be forced to cease. (CBC - image credit)

The publicly funded society that provides independent legal aid for low-income Albertans says its contract with the government has expired, and the provincial government has decided not to renew it.

In a release, Legal Aid Alberta (LAA), says it has been negotiating a new governance agreement with the Ministry of Justice and the Law Society of Alberta for several months, but the ministry suddenly halted negotiations and terminated the agreement.

The society's current governance agreement expired on June 30.

LAA says the agreement is necessary to deliver its services to Albertans, and that without it, the society will no longer be able to issue certificates — the process used to assign defence lawyers to cases — past July 9.

"Without a governance agreement in place, our ability to conduct business is compromised," reads the release.

In a statement, the Office of the Minister of Justice did not directly address LAA's claims that it had halted negotiations or terminated the agreement. Instead, it said it would continue to work with LAA to ensure it is properly resourced going forward.

"Alberta's government remains committed to working with Legal Aid Alberta to ensure Legal Aid is well-funded to continue to provide high-quality legal aid services to Albertans," reads the statement. "It is also imperative that we are responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars, and that funding is being spent with the best interests of Albertans in mind."

Province proposed grant agreement instead

The province did acknowledge that the current governance agreement expired, but said it's working to put an interim grant agreement with LAA in place, that will ensure it has enough funding to maintain operations.

It also said that at the end of May, LAA had a cash balance of over $82.1 million.

"As [LAA] is aware, a grant payment of $27.5 million is being processed while we wait for them to complete and return the grant agreement," reads the statement.

"We are confident the funds we have already provided Legal Aid Alberta are sufficient to maintain a strong roster of lawyers as well as day-to-day operations in the coming months as we finalize a new grant agreement."

Ryan Callioux, LAA board chair, said in a release that he was only made aware of the new grant agreement in a letter from Malcolm Lavoie, deputy minister of justice, sent on June 27.

"The letter indicated that the minister had determined... that the 'best approach' was to embark on an entirely new path that would require the board to make a snap decision on whether to accept the minister's proposal to sign a grant agreement," read the release.

LAA says that negotiations with the province and the Law Society of Alberta "advanced fruitfully" throughout 2024, and that it only had a handful of minor issues to resolve when it came to final meetings in March and April.

It says a final meeting scheduled for May 15 was cancelled by the justice minister on May 10.

Trigger a 'breakdown' of the system

Callioux says the new grant agreement proposed by the province is a departure from the previous governance agreement in that it would curtail LAA's independence, sever any involvement with the Law Society of Alberta, and give the government greater discretion over how the society uses its funds.

In a statement Wednesday afternoon, Justice Minister Mickey Amery said the province has offered to extend the existing funding agreement to ensure the delivery of legal services by LAA continues unaltered.

Amery added, though, that the new funding agreement — when decided upon — will include more transparency and accountability measures.

The minister also disputed that the Law Society of Alberta's involvement in LAA would be severed, saying the body would continue its legal aid board governance via the bylaws of LAA.

Amery said LAA's grant funding has increased by an unsustainable amount over the past nine years, from $66 million in the 2015 budget to $110 million this year.

The province did not directly respond to CBC News requests for further clarity regarding the contents of the letter sent by the deputy minister of justice.

In a new release sent on Tuesday evening, the Calgary Criminal Defence Lawyers Association said it was shocked by the news that a new agreement had not been signed.

"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," read the release.

"The impacts of this change will be greater than just affecting criminal defence matters. Legal aid funding affects the administration of family law, child welfare, and immigration matters as well."

CDLA added that the potential cessation of services by LAA past July 9 could trigger a "breakdown of an already overtaxed and under-resourced system."

More uncertainty, less independence

The grant agreement proposed by the government model gives Amery "absolute and total control," said Edmonton criminal defence lawyer Paul Moreau.

"The minister can review the funding, he can change it at any time, he can terminate it at any time, he can decide the government has overspent and require legal aid to pay back money that's already been spent."

Uncertain, one-year funding hamstrings the agency's ability to litigate complex, multi-year cases, Moreau said.

It also undermines the organization's independence, especially in cases involving family law, child welfare and immigration, Moreau said.

"In many of these different contexts, the other side of the litigation is the government. It's important that the lawyer that is appointed and the organization that's paying that lawyer be independent of government.

"If the government were to find displeasure in anything done by legal aid, they could exact vengeance by withholding funds or demanding repayment of funds."

The proposal would restrict the organization's ability to pay third-party experts, including psychologists, or for services such as court transcripts.

Justice and human rights advocate Chris Harrington said he supports Amery's changes, saying the current legal aid model is bloated and siphons too much money away from front-line services. He suggested its lawyers are too quick to call for services such as psychological assessments and too eager to challenge government policy in court.

"We need something a bit sharper, a bit leaner and focused on the legal aspect of it, not the political aspect of it."

He said Amery's proposal could point toward a public defender system led by experienced lawyers, with "firewalls" between it and politicians and answerable to the legislature, not the minister.

Moreau questioned Amery's rationale of stewarding tax dollars. He said governments are required under the Constitution to provide counsel for those who can't afford it, and Alberta may now be forced to hire lawyers privately instead of going through legal aid.

"It will cost astronomically more money," Moreau said. "This isn't about the money. It's about something else."