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Legal aid boycott expands outside Toronto

|Written By Robert Todd

Criminal lawyers’ legal aid boycott has expanded outside the Toronto area to other parts of the province, with lawyers in both the Kingston and Thunder Bay areas announcing they will not work on serious cases until the province increases funding to the system.

“The legal aid program is broken - it has been broken for some 20 years,” says Michael Mandelcorn, the regional director for the Criminal Lawyers’ Association in the Kingston area. “It’s time to have service providers no longer supporting the program and having the sufficient funds so we can properly defend clients who are charged with serious criminal matters.”

Meanwhile, CLA president Frank Addario tells Law Times the association recently met with Attorney General Chris Bentley to discuss their concerns with the legal aid system. But Addario’s comments suggest that talk was fruitless, and he would not say if further discussions are planned.

Addario says the attorney general “did meet with our board, and gave us his thoughtful and considered perspective.”

But he adds, “Unfortunately he was not able to commit at this time to the improvements that are critical to ensuring a sustainable and equitable legal aid system.”

Lawyers involved in the Kingston-area boycott practise in that city and surrounding areas such as Belleville, Napanee, and Trenton. There are 27 CLA members in that area, with 19 in Kingston alone. Through their boycott, those lawyers will not accept legal aid certificates for cases involving homicides and dangerous offenders.

“Kingston is very solidly on board,” says Mandelcorn. “The boycott technically is geared for those lawyers with five-plus years of experience. I can tell you that, at least in the Kingston region, nobody who is a member of the CLA has stated that they will take those cases that we are boycotting, regardless of the year of call.

“So the support is very strong by the CLA members here.”

Gil Labine, the CLA’s regional director for the Thunder Bay area, which includes much of northwestern Ontario, says that area’s membership has signed onto an agreement that will see all lawyers with nine years of experience or more refuse legal aid certificates for homicide or gang-related cases.

“We’ve got full co-operation from all of our lawyers, including lawyers from Manitoba who practise in northwestern Ontario, and we would like to have the issue addressed by the attorney general and have him . . . try to work out a fair compensation for legal aid,” says Labine.

Addario says the boycott in the Thunder Bay area will involve 16 of the “most senior lawyers” in that region.

Labine says that, “We’re all

subsidizing the system. A lot of the work we’re doing for free. The Crown’s office and the judges are all being compensated handsomely for the system to run, and we haven’t been compensated in the last 20 years adequately at all.

“Everyone expects the system to run smoothly, and it can’t run without defence lawyers, and we’re tired of subsidizing the system. We want something done on it.”

Labine says he expects the boycott to gradually expand to all areas of the province.

“There are over 1,000 lawyers who are members of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association, and if all 1,000 of those lawyers stop taking legal aid for those cases, the system is just going to get backed up. It’ll break down and it simply won’t work.

“So it’ll have to be addressed. What’ll happen is the courts will be left with addressing the issue. The issue will then become a judge’s issue as to how much a lawyer should be compensated. If the issue comes down to the court determining how much we should be compensated for doing a first-degree murder case, I’ll tell you right now every court is going to be awarding us over $200 an hour, in order to effectively provide a defence.

“If the attorney general waits for that to happen, then the amount that they’re going to be forced to be used to compensate us will be a lot more than he budgets for.”

Adds Labine, “All of us are reluctant to do this - we’ve been suffering for 20 years and it’s not something we want to do. It’s a last resort, and we’re hopeful that the attorney general can sit down with the president of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association and our committee on legal aid and work out a fair and equitable system of compensation for legal aid clients.”

Addario calls the legal aid system “a liberal idea,” comparing it to public education or universal health care.

“It’s the government saying to people without money that poverty will not be the sole reference point when you’re in a legal jam,” he says. “That’s the promise. Report after report has told Ontario governments they’re breaking the promise.”

Adds Addario, “There’s no joy whatsoever in the bar about telling the public the system is broken. It’s a big disappointment it’s come to this.”

By the middle of last week the boycott had grown to 355 CLA members, 41 non-members, and 21 law firms, according to the association’s web site.

The lawyers want the top legal aid rate raised above the current $98 per hour, which they says fails to adequately take into account high overhead costs and many hours of free work they provide due to Legal Aid Ontario’s restricted yearly budget.

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