Defence attorneys in the province are considering job action if the government doesn’t increase the amount it pays for legal aid.
The President of the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association of Manitoba, Gerri Wiebe, says that while nothing is set in stone yet, they are looking at everything they can do to try and get the government's attention.
The Government of Manitoba pays a tariff to private defence lawyers who take on cases for people who can’t afford an attorney otherwise. The current rate is set at $80 an hour, which hasn’t been changed in 11 years, while the cost of living in the province has gone up 17 percent in that same time.
The association went on strike in 2008 to have the rate increased to the price it’s at now. Wiebe says that while the association doesn’t want to take a similar course, the government I pushing them in that direction.
Wiebe noted that no lawyer actually takes home $80/hour. An associate at a firm will take home only about 15 percent of that before taxes. If you own the firm, the money goes towards paying everything from other staff salaries and researchers to office equipment and business taxes.
Wiebe says that after all the hours needed to work some cases, lawyers aren’t working for anywhere near the $80/hour rate. As it stands right now, lawyers are required to submit the number of hours they expect to bill for a case to the government before the case.
Wiebe says the overworking results in young, unexperienced lawyers taking on serious cases, impacting the outcome of the case.
The association has been asking the province to increase the rate since 2017 but has been routinely dismissed. They did meet with the previous justice minister, Heather Stefanson, and then in 2018, they sent a list of recommendations to the province outlining what the association was necessary.
The ongoing situation with the defence attorneys isn’t the justice ministry’s only problem right now.
A survey given to Manitoba government employees in late 2018 scored the justice department lower than all other departments.
The survey found that employees of the department feel that they are undervalued, have concerns about leadership in their office, and note a lack of meaningful recognition.
More than 1,400 justice department employees filled out the survey.