Deborah R. Hatch is director of the Canadian Council of Criminal Defense Lawyers and past president of the Criminal Trial Lawyers’ Association of Alberta
We have all heard of highly publicized wrongful convictions in Canada and elsewhere. What leads to those injustices is a complicated question.
One of the main factors identified in the many miscarriages of justice that have come to light is inexperienced or overburdened defense counsel. The criminal justice system can only function with a strong, properly funded and independent defense bar, capable of providing vigorous and effective representation.
Over many decades, the Alberta criminal justice system, while certainly not perfect, has functioned well.
Prosecutors paid by the provincial government have represented the interests of the state, and defense lawyers have provided legal representation to accused persons. Those who are able to retain a lawyer on their own do so.
Since 1973, the Legal Aid Society of Alberta has provided representation to indigent persons and the working poor, paid for with funding from the province and other sources. The program provides legal representation not only to accused persons, but also to abused women, refugees and others.
But today, the legal aid system is being starved. Contrary to the Alberta government’s claims that legal aid funding has increased since 2015, Alberta’s Legal Aid funding has actually decreased dramatically over the past few years.
As a result, thousands of Albertans cannot qualify for representation due to strict guidelines that fail to keep up with changes in the economy. Those who do qualify are represented by lawyers who are not paid for many hours of the work they do. And for those hours for which they are paid, the rate has not increased in seven years, and does not cover much beyond office overhead.
The steps being taken by