Calgary Remand Centre inmates say that because of provincewide job action by defence lawyers, they are unable to access lawyers through Legal Aid Alberta and are stuck in custody — sometimes for weeks.
Our News spoke with three inmates who are charged with minor criminal or driving offences, including possession of stolen property under $5,000, dangerous operation of a motor vehicle, drug possession and breaches.
Kirk Mugford says he has been in the Remand Centre since Sept. 28 and is trying to set a trial date but wants a lawyer.
“I keep phoning legal aid and they keep telling me that they put out my certificate to multiple firms and they keep telling me that they’re being denied,” said Mugford.
He says there are between 40 and 50 other people on his unit who are in the same boat.
“It’s just filling up in here,” he said. “People aren’t getting out.”
Lawrence Culajara said he’s also been trying to get a lawyer through legal aid, since Oct. 4, but his application isn’t getting accepted. He said the last time he spoke to a lawyer, they said they wouldn’t take any clients until the matters they’re striking for are resolved.
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Members of four defence lawyer organizations across the province, along with some family lawyers who take on cases for Albertans eligible for legal aid support, have been refusing legal aid cases since Sept. 26.
The lawyers have been calling for an increase in the rates paid to lawyers who take on legal aid cases, arguing the province has fallen behind other jurisdictions.
“I felt hopeless,” said Culajara, who doesn’t feel comfortable representing himself. “I have a bad record. But that doesn’t mean that I have to spend life in jail without having someone to represent me.”
The province said Sunday it hasn’t heard of any delays.
“As far as we’ve heard from legal aid is that they have been able to manage all certificates (including those from custody),” said Joseph Dow, press secretary for Alberta Minister of Justice Tyler Shandro, in a statement.
Inmates can still access duty counsel
In September, immediately before the refusal happened, Shandro said anyone who needed to access a lawyer through legal aid would still be able to get one.
Kelsey Sitar, a criminal defence lawyer and vice-president of the Calgary Criminal Defence Lawyers Association, said that could mean inmates can still access duty counsel, which offers limited basic services such as putting a case over to a later date.
“If the only assistance they’re getting is duty counsel — and all that duty counsel can really do is adjourn it over and hope that they find a lawyer willing to take a certificate — that’s a significant problem,” Sitar said.
She didn’t have specific numbers but said that since the job action began, duty counsel in many locations are now appearing remotely because they are so busy. That makes it difficult to see, for example, paper documents an inmate might have that would assist in resolving their case and reducing the backlog.
She says the strike is longer than others in Alberta and has been so “all-encompassing” that it’s leaving folks in a position with little legal precedent, but that they still have a right to a lawyer.
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“I think there are charter violations at play here if they can’t find a lawyer to take that certificate because they have the right to it,” said Sitar.
“It’s just not going to be in the way we usually see these things litigated because the issue isn’t that the person can’t get a lawyer paid for by the government. The government is willing to pay. The issue is that there’s no lawyer willing to accept that rate of pay.”
Last month, Shandro said a modernization review of Legal Aid Alberta, which began in May, would wrap up in October, and indicated the tariff rate paid to lawyers would be considered as part of the review.
In a statement sent to us, Legal Aid Alberta said that all Albertans facing criminal charges who are eligible for legal aid will be appointed counsel.
“Clients in custody have a priority phone queue for legal aid services. The time it takes to get legal aid representation may vary based on case complexity and other factors that are beyond our control,” they wrote in the statement.