Legal aid boycott gathering strength


From Friday’s Globe and Mail


Defence lawyers in two more Ontario centres and an organization that picks up the pieces after a miscarriage of justice – the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted – have joined a spreading legal-aid boycott.

The addition of several dozen lawyers in Hamilton, Sudbury and Barrie means that the boycott now covers a substantial portion of the province.

Virtually every defence lawyer with five years of experience in Toronto, Kingston and Thunder Bay had earlier agreed to boycott legal-aid cases that involve homicide or guns and gang laws.

Robert Gee, past president of the Hamilton Criminal Lawyers’ Association, said yesterday that the city’s 40 defence lawyers joined in reluctantly, given that the region has been so hard hit by the recession.

"Ontario has a two-tier legal system and we want the public to know that," Mr. Gee said. "You need to fund social programs in tough times or they fail their promise. The newly unemployed and the middle class depend on a program that can’t meet the demands on it."

In launching the boycott last month, the Criminal Lawyers’ Association said that the province would make a net saving were it to fund legal-aid properly, since experienced lawyers shorten trials by negotiating pragmatic plea bargains, conceding hopeless evidentiary points and streamlining the trial process.

AIDWYC director James Lockyer said yesterday that there is a direct link between poor trial counsel, underpaid expert witnesses and wrongful convictions. He criticized appellate judges for making it almost impossible to overturn convictions where an inexperienced trial lawyer hurt his client’s interests.

"You read trial transcripts and sometimes you just go, ‘Oh, my God,’ " Mr. Lockyer said. "But the Ontario Court of Appeal has such a high threshold for demonstrating ineffective assistance of counsel, that you do everything you can to avoid alleging it."

If appellate judges made it easier to win new trials based on ineffective counsel, Mr. Lockyer predicted, the province would respond swiftly with higher legal-aid fees in order to attract experienced lawyers back into the courtroom.

"It costs money – but it avoids years of legal wreckage and misery for the wrongly convicted," he said. "If the government doesn’t listen to what judges and lawyers are telling them, we are going to be cleaning up the mess for the next two decades."

The CLA’s Sudbury director, Craig Fleming, said yesterday that: "I am unable to go into legal fights as well-equipped as my opponents because of two decades of cutbacks and freezes. The people who are paying for that are the poor, the middle class and the recently unemployed."

Thomas Bryson, president of Simcoe County Criminal Lawyers’ Association, said that all 17 senior lawyers in his region will no longer keep an "unbalanced" program afloat.

"It is time to go public," he said. "I have never refused to defend someone with legal problems because they couldn’t afford legal services. But I can’t make a social program work if the government doesn’t do more than it’s doing. Our resolve is against two-tier justice, not the government."

Mr. Bryson said that lawyers are routinely refusing legal-aid cases now: "I don’t expect that to change until the program is fixed."

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