As four criminal defense lawyers’ organizations take action to demand reform of Legal Aid Alberta’s (LAA) funding, family advocates this month unite to form a new coalition to take on the cause.
Alberta attorneys have taken labor action since August, with most defense attorneys rejecting new legal aid cases. Now family attorneys want to urge the LAA to make changes.
The lawyers called for an increase in the rates paid to lawyers who take on legal aid cases, arguing that the province has fallen behind other jurisdictions.
Eligibility requirements are also a point of contention, with many lawyers saying the latitude is too narrow, making legal aid inaccessible to many who need it.
Justine Fallu, family attorney in Edmonton, helps found the Family Lawyers Association.
Fallu said many LAA family advocates are frustrated and are pushing to form an association to garner support and unity within the field.
“The reality of the situation is that there is a large cross-section of the Alberta population who simply cannot afford a family lawyer, and the court sees the burden.
“It’s frustrating because then it becomes a decision to say, ‘Am I going to take it pro bono? How much am I going to write off? What do I do with overhead and payouts?’”
Kaylee Sime, an Edmonton mother, has sought legal counsel for help with her family law case.
She says she hasn’t seen her two sons since August due to an ongoing custody battle.
Sime says she filed her application for a family attorney for legal aid in August and was told she would have to wait up to a month before an attorney was appointed for her case.
Almost four months later, Sime has still not received official legal counsel.
“I don’t have access to my kids because I don’t have access to a lawyer,” Sime told CBC.
Realizing that family attorneys to take on legal aid cases were hard to come by, Sime said she turned to the Edmonton Community Legal Center for advice.
She spoke to a volunteer for an hour, who gave her answers to her most pressing questions, took notes for a staff attorney to review, and filed documents for Sime’s court appearance.
However, Sime says she still has to represent herself and cannot have an ongoing relationship with an attorney.
“I’ve invested so much to get my own representation through legal aid, but that’s probably pipe dream. I must continue my research based on what I have been given by this other attorney to represent me,” Sime said.
Danielle Boisvert, president of the Criminal Trial Lawyers’ Association, said family lawyers have requested more resources from the LAA since the pandemic began.
Boisvert said LAA has reduced the number of hours family lawyers could charge per case from 30 to eight in many cases.
“[LAA] put people like [Sime] in a severely disadvantaged situation where she does not have access to the courts and the family court is sometimes even more difficult to navigate than the criminal court,” Boisvert said.
In an emailed statement to the CBC, the Department of Justice told the CBC that ensuring that every Albertan has fair and equitable access to the legal system is a priority.
“At this time we are not aware of any family lawyers’ associations taking any action… The government has always ensured that Legal Aid Alberta has adequate funds to meet demand for its services and there have been no instances where Albertans had no access to family members or criminal services due to insufficient funding,” spokesman Ethan Lecavalier-Niere wrote in the statement.
Unlike criminal cases, where Boisvert says judges are likely to grant more Rowbotham motions — a process that allows the court to appoint legal representation — individuals in family courts are often self-tried.
Boisvert told CBC that the new association of family lawyers should help join forces for more representation during consultations with LAA.
Fallu says that although some family attorneys try to take on legal aid cases as a public service, most cases fall through the cracks, whether due to inadmissibility or a lack of attorneys to take legal aid cases.
The interim association of family advocates will hold its first town hall on November 22nd, and Fallu hopes this will be the start of greater accessibility for people like Sime.
LAA did not want to comment on the ongoing job campaign.