Alberta Legal Aid Set to Cease Operations

Sébastien Gray
Sébastien Gray
Sébastien is a published journalist and historicist with over six years of experience in freelance journalism and research. His primary expertise is in African conflict and politics, with additional specialization in Israeli/Palestinian and Armenia/Azerbaijan conflicts. Sébastien serves as the deputy desk chief for Africa.

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Legal Aid in the province of Alberta, Canada, has announced it will be forced to cease operations next week due to the expiry of an agreement with the provincial government, which the government has not moved to renew. The lack of an agreement threatens legal access for thousands of Albertans.

What is Legal Aid?

Legal Aid Alberta seeks to provide affordable legal services for Albertans who would not be able to afford them otherwise. Their services are completely free for people who make $30,000 CAD a year or less. The provincial government raised the qualification bar to $30,000 in April to include those making minimum wage. With the yearly average salary for minimum wage workers being $28,860, minimum wage workers just make the cut.

All of Canada’s provinces and territories have a legal aid system. Although the majority of their funding comes from the provincial and federal governments, legal aid programs operate independently of them.

Legal Aid Alberta receives most of its funds (as is the case with all other Legal Aid entities) from the provincial government, followed by the federal government, with the Alberta Law Foundation making up the small remainder.

Legal Aid Alberta, though independent of the government, answers to the Minister of Justice, and the Law Society of Alberta.

Tens of thousands of Albertans access legal aid services every year.

The logo of Legal Aid Alberta (Photo from CBC).

What is the Issue?

Legal Aid Alberta has announced that the governance agreement they had with the Alberta government expired on June 30th.

They stated that they had begun negotiations for the agreement’s renewal well ahead of time, in March 2023. Negotiations continued into 2024, and Legal Aid Alberta had scheduled another meeting in May with the Justice Minister to resolve any outstanding issues before the agreement was renewed.

According to Board Chairman Ryan Callioux, the Justice Ministry cancelled the meeting. Further, Callioux claims the government did not say why they had cancelled the meeting.

“We’re very concerned about the vulnerable Albertans who are going to be impacted by this. We’re unclear on why the government has chosen to take this direction. They have not provided any rationale for what they’re doing.” -Ryan Callioux, Board Chairman of Legal Aid Alberta

According to Legal Aid Alberta, with the absence of such an agreement, they will be unable to issue certificates as of July 9th, at 4:30 p.m. local time. The certificates serve as legal files that are assigned to Legal Aid Alberta’s lawyers in order to service applicants.

With the absence of certificates and a government agreement, “our ability to conduct business is compromised,” stated Legal Aid Alberta.

In turn, the government has offered a different kind of agreement. Alberta’s government has offered Legal Aid Alberta a grant agreement, which according to Callioux, makes substantial changes to the agreement between the government and Legal Aid, changes which threaten the future of the organization.

Callioux stated the grant agreement offered by the government would completely remove the role of the Law Society of Alberta from Legal Aid, as well as “significantly curtal” Legal Aid Alberta’s independence, and funding.

“The grant agreement is skewed heavily in favour of the minister, with almost no meaningful obligations on the part of the minister, including any obligation to continue funding. It is critical that whatever the format, the independence of Legal Aid Alberta must be sacrosanct. If it is not, the justice system will suffer significantly.” -Ryan Callioux, Board Chairman of Legal Aid Alberta

According to Callioux, the agreement proposed by the government would give the Alberta government significant control over Legal Aid Alberta, including its funds and, most notably, a large say in how the money is spent.

Further, Callioux stated that the Alberta Justice Ministry only informed him of the grant agreement on June 27th, and that they expected a response by July 1st.

Legal Aid Alberta has not officially accepted nor denied the agreement, and has called for the government to return to negotiations in order to facilitate a new agreement.

What is the Government Saying?

The Office of the Justice Minister released a statement concerning the situation.

Notably, the Justice Ministry does not acknowledge Legal Aid Alberta’s claims that they had canceled negotiations. Rather, the Justice Ministry stated that they would work with Legal Aid Alberta to ensure that they had the resources they needed to continue operating.

A photo of the Alberta Minister of Justice, Mickey Amery (Photo from Global News).

While the Justice Ministry stated it was important to ensure “high-quality legal aid services to Albertans,” they also had to be “responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars.”

“Alberta’s government remains committed to working with Legal Aid Alberta to ensure Legal Aid is well-funded to continue to provide high-quality legal aid services to Albertans. It is also imperative that we are responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars, and that funding is being spent with the best interests of Albertans in mind.” -An Excerpt from the Statement of the Alberta Ministry of Justice

The government acknowledged that the previous agreement had expired, and stated they were working to come to an “interim grant agreement” with Legal Aid Alberta in order to ensure the group has the funds to continue operations before a final agreement is reached. The government stated that “a grant payment of $27.5 million is being processed while we wait for them to complete and return the grant agreement.”

“We are confident the funds we have already provided Legal Aid Alberta are sufficient to maintain a strong roster of lawyers as well as day-to-day operations in the coming months as we finalize a new grant agreement.” -An Excerpt from the Statement of the Alberta Ministry of Justice

In addition to the $27.5 million, the government claimed that Legal Aid Alberta had $82.1 million in available funds at the end of May. Legal Aid Alberta has stated all of their remaining funds must be reserved in order to pay staff salaries, vendors, and service providers.

In a release condemning the situation, the Calgary Criminal Defence Lawyers Association said that the potential cessation of services by Legal Aid Alberta could cause a “breakdown of an already overtaxed and under-resourced system.”