Legal Aid lawyers and staff are concerned about the future of the free program in cities including Prince Albert which helps the most vulnerable and marginalized people who can ill-afford legal assistance. This follows recent job cuts. However, Legal Aid’s management says changes have been made to better serve clients.
CUPE said it is now marshalling support from a number of quarters following a recent and unexpected move to axe most duty counsel jobs in their Saskatoon office. They said that work was now set to be contracted out to private lawyers.
“Now we’re really wondering what this means for the rest of the province,” long-time Legal Aid lawyer and CUPE local 1949 vice president Deb Hopkins told paNOW. “This has been sprung on us with absolutely no notice and without a coherent explanation as to why, and that sends shock waves throughout the system.”
Hopkins said three of four duty council lawyers were laid off in Saskatoon along with six support staff while the “chronically underfunded” Legal Aid Saskatchewan was suffering from an extreme, escalating workload. She indicated the motive for the changes was to save costs and address the high remand rate of around 53 per cent of clients, but she’s not accepting that.
“The idea is that somehow we’re responsible for this high remand rate, whereas in Alberta for example - that’s got an almost purely private system for Legal Aid - their remand rate is 72 per cent and Manitoba’s is 68 per cent. We’re among the lowest in the country,” she said.
Hopkins added the cuts would hurt the mainly Indigenous community who've long relied on the specialist knowledge they provide.
“It’s not a nameless, faceless person [we deal with],” she said. “This is a real person that deserves people who understand them, who have vast experience, and care in a fundamental way about their communities and know what resources are available. There’s a whole package there for people.”
Hopkins said they’d be stepping up their advocacy to preserve the integrity of the Legal Aid program including meeting with politicians and examining all legal options.
“This is not over; this administration is going to hear loud and clear this is to the detriment of our clients, the vast majority of whom are Indigenous,” she explained.
Hopkins added the 155 full-time equivalent staffing across the province had been without a collective agreement since 2016.
paNOW reached out to senior management at Legal Aid Saskatchewan. In a written statement CEO Craig Goebel said, in part:
"Most of the duty counsel service work, including bail hearings, will be contracted to private bar. This will increase the organization’s ability to provide flexible services such as more lawyers available when more people are arrested. This will mean that people will not wait as long to be released, thereby reducing the number of remanded prisoners and their time on remand."
The statement added Legal Aid was merging the Saskatoon Criminal and Saskatoon Family Offices in Saskatoon to create one office serving the urban centre as they have in Prince Albert and Regina. Also, they would be creating a province-wide Telephone Application Centre in Regina in the fall and that would increase the public’s ability to apply for legal aid by phone, so they won’t have to apply in person at an office.
This was not a step towards the privatization of Legal Aid and no cuts were planned for the Prince Albert office, according to Goebel’s statement.
According to Legal Aid’s website the Provincial Government, through Saskatchewan Justice, funds The Saskatchewan Legal Aid Commission. By agreement, the Government of Canada reimburses the Province for some legal aid expenditures on criminal matters and Youth Criminal Justice Act matters.
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