When lawyers go on strike

Should legal aid rates be increased?

Can lawyers go on strike? You’d think no, not if they have their own practices. But effectively that’s what many defence lawyers in Ontario are up to these days. Maybe they don’t make as many headlines as garbage collectors in Windsor or Toronto who walked off their jobs around the same time. But the consequences of their action can be more far-reaching than overflowing trash bins on Toronto streets. And unlike unions, defence lawyers don’t have the advantage of labour mediation.

It all started with a Criminal Lawyers’ Association Board resolution on June 1, 2009. In it, the CLA requested “senior Toronto members not to take legal aid certificates in Guns & Gangs and homicide cases.” According to the CLA website, the “purpose of this public resolution is to highlight the notorious imbalance in the system between police and prosecution compensation and resources and legal aid defence counsel compensation resources.” Read the letter from Frank Addario, the President of the CLA, to Chris Bentley, Attorney General of Ontario for background information and statistics.

The issue here is simple. Ontario Crown lawyers received a 57% pay increase between 1997 and 2007. Legal aid lawyers got a 15% increase since twice as long ago. Prices went up 75% in the same period. Yes, it means that in real terms legal-aid pay went down a lot. Many defence lawyers effectively work on legal-aid files pro bono part of the time. A criminal lawyer who mentors me told me Legal Aid only paid for two hours for the bail hearing we did last week. He spent at least a day working on it. The issue is simple. It’s the balance of power between the Crown and the accused.

Justice means the state accusing you of a crime does not have preponderantly more resources on your case than you do. We are all entitled to justice. Who will disagree with this? Are we, as a society, prepared to pay for justice for all? Even for the criminally accused? Legal Aid’s budget in Ontario was $309 million in 2006. Is it too much? Too little? It clearly translates into too little on a case-by-case basis. And we as a society, at least in Ontario, have been reluctant to open our pockets wider. Today, defence lawyers resort to shock tactics to attract our attention to this issue. It’s about justice for all, don’t you think?


By Lawiscool.com contributors

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