Alberta defence lawyers pause legal aid job action as government announces tariff rate increase

By Ian Burns

Law360 Canada (December 23, 2022, 11:27 AM EST) -- Defence counsel in Alberta have agreed to hit the pause button on months of job action over legal aid funding, after the provincial government announced it was increasing tariff rates by 25 per cent.

The tariff rate and block billing for legal aid lawyers will rise to $125 per hour from the current $100 on Jan. 1, following an 8.225 per cent increase to tariff rates and eligibility guidelines which was announced in October. That move made Alberta’s hourly tariff rate the fourth highest among provinces, according to provincial Justice Minister Tyler Shandro.

“I want to thank all legal aid lawyers for their patience and advocacy as we have worked our way through the review,” Shandro said in a statement. “Our commitment to review all aspects of legal aid funding remains in place and will be completed in the new year. I also want to commend my colleagues and Premier [Danielle] Smith, who recognized the need for further funding for the legal aid system.”

Justice Minister Tyler Shandro

Justice Minister Tyler Shandro

In April 2022, the Alberta government instructed Legal Aid Alberta (LAA) to conduct a modernization review of the legal aid system, and they submitted their recommendations to the justice minister in October. The province said the review will benefit the roster by simplifying certificate management and administration, simplifying billing under the tariff and ensuring adequate compensation for substantive work required on a file.

The announcement on the tariff increase comes amidst a nearly five-month job action which saw roster lawyers withdrawing services in protest of what they called chronic underfunding of the legal aid system. The job action, which was led by the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association (CDLA) of Calgary, the Criminal Trial Lawyers’ Association (CTLA) of Edmonton, the Red Deer Criminal Defence Lawyers Association and the Lethbridge-based Southern Alberta Defence Lawyers’ Association, began in early August and eventually led to defence lawyers withdrawing all services by the end of September.

But CDLA secretary Kim Arial said all four organizations have now agreed to pause their job action, starting Jan. 1. She said she was “cautiously optimistic” that both the tariff increase and the modernization review are signs of good faith from the government in recognizing that Alberta legal aid lawyers have been grossly undercompensated for many years.

“So, this increase to us is an interim increase, and the government has called it that as well — but we are only pausing our job action, it is not a definite end to it,” said Arial, who practises criminal law in Calgary. “But we believe the government has shown that they are going to continue to review the current tariff models in Alberta, so we expect that there is going to be a further increase in the spring that actually does bring us into line with comparable provinces like B.C. and Ontario.”

But Arial also said “something that was missing” from the announcement was talk about the financial eligibility thresholds for people are seeking legal aid.

“Back in October the government also increased the eligibility guidelines by 8.225 per cent, but they haven’t done that this time. We understand that requires a little bit more of a complex nuanced analysis, because as you increase the threshold the pool of applicants becomes bigger,” she said. “We do understand the government is consulting on those guidelines, but that is something we expect to see movement on at the conclusion of the review.”

The province said Legal Aid Alberta will update internal systems and prepare to implement the modernization recommendations in spring 2023.

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