EDMONTON — Alberta criminal defence lawyers have told the province they will scrap a volunteer program that helps the poor or people with disabilities apply for legal aid.
The Criminal Trial Lawyers' Association and Criminal Defence Lawyers Association have written a letter to Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley saying their members will stop providing the service Nov. 1.
"We remain hopeful that our new government recognizes the severity of the situation facing the legal-aid system in our province, and will take immediate and decisive measures to ensure that Legal Aid Alberta is provided with the independence and the stable, adequate and predictable funding it needs,'' reads the letter.
Lawyer Kelly Dawson said 75 lawyers across the province are affected and the decision will lead to more delays in already clogged courts.
The lawyers began the service last year to help needy clients through a cumbersome process of applying to a judge to get a court order for legal aid.
Dawson said the program helped hundreds of people charged with serious crimes, but lawyers can't afford to do it any longer.
"Our membership is exhausted doing these things,'' he said Thursday. "We are frustrated.''
The associations said Alberta legal aid has been poorly funded for years and the new NDP government must come up with a better way.
Ganley said she is aware of ongoing problems with legal aid before receiving the letter from the lawyers, but noted their decision adds some urgency to the situation.
The minister said the issues could put vulnerable Albertans in a difficult position and the situation is likely to get worse with the economic downturn.
Her department is reviewing the problems, Ganley said, and hopes to come up with an interim solution in the coming weeks.
"We are working with legal aid in terms of coming up with some measures to address the immediate crisis. Obviously the review is going to take a little while.''
The government is considering some proposals from Legal Aid Alberta, but Ganley declined to give any details.
"My hope is to have that set up and in place before Nov. 1,'' she said. "We don't want to leave vulnerable Albertans in a position where they are going to lack for services.''
Last year, the former Progressive Conservative government announced it would increase funding for legal aid by $5.5 million and make it easier for low-income earners to qualify.
That came after Legal Aid Alberta closed six regional offices and laid off staff in Calgary, Whitecourt and Lethbridge.
Lawyers threatened job action at the time to try to pressure the government to provide an additional $8 million a year.
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