Legal Aid Alberta has helped to provide various types of affordable legal services since 1973 but now its future is in jeopardy.

Originally, the expiry date for the Governance Agreement between the province and Legal Aid Alberta was set for March 31st but was extended to June 30th, but no new agreement has been reached.

Now, the organization says without a proper Governance Agreement, it will not be able to offer services as of July 9th.

That agreement gave Legal Aid Alberta independence from the Alberta Government, while the province was responsible for ensuring there was an efficient use of funds.

The agreement also saw the Law Society of Alberta making sure that there is a sound practice of law in the province.

The current Governance Agreement took months to design and negotiate, and Legal Aid wasn't interested in going through all of that again, especially because they felt the agreement was already functioning well.

Legal Aid heard nothing back from the government for several months, and it wasn't until Nov 6th, 2023, that the Province sent Legal Aid a letter, stating that they wish to reopen negotiations. However, according to a statement on Legal Aid's website, the government did not provide details about what they wanted to address and why.

On Nov 30th, 2023, Legal Aid Alberta responded to the province, suggesting they only negotiate the administratively cumbersome parts, and advised the government they were comfortable with the current agreement.

In early 2024, there were dates set to discuss the new Governance Agreement, leading to a significant number of resources being invested into the negotiations by all parties.

"Those negotiations advanced fruitfully to the point where there were only a handful of relatively minor drafting issues to resolve coming out of the meetings on March 18 and April 10, 2024," explained Legal Aid Board Chair Ryan Callioux in a statement from July 2nd on its website. "There was a subsequent meeting scheduled for May 15, 2024, to conclude any remaining issues. Essentially, we came to a place where we believed that (but for a few minor details that could not serve as a serious impediment) we had a mutually beneficial and acceptable agreement, which would have resulted in a Governance Agreement being in place for the next several years."

After the April 10th meeting, the Provincial Government had seemingly disappeared.

"Despite the extensive efforts that had been invested by Legal Aid Alberta and the Law Society of Alberta in the negotiation process, and despite repeated requests for information and updates after the April 10 meeting and leading up to the May 15 meeting, there were no substantive communications coming from the Minister’s office relating to the matters that remained for further discussion," Callioux said in the statement.

He added that the meeting scheduled for May 15th was cancelled by the Minister of Justice on May 10th, without explanation.

Even with a lack of communication from the Minister's office, Legal Aid Alberta still believed that there weren't going to be any issues and that the delay might have been just a matter of receiving the final draft of the agreement.

On June 24th, Callioux wrote to the minister and requested an update on where they stood with the Agreement.

"Then on the evening of June 27, 2024, one day before the long weekend during which the existing Governance Agreement would expire, I received a letter from Deputy Minister of Justice, Malcolm Lavoie. The letter indicated that the Minister had determined -- unilaterally and without any notice to or consultation with the other parties to the Governance Agreement -- that the "best approach" was to embark on an entirely new path that would require the Board to make a snap decision on whether to accept the Minister’s proposal to sign a Grant Agreement," said Callioux.

The Minister had told them they needed to decide on the new agreement by July 1st.

The Law Society of Alberta would no longer be part of this new agreement, leaving just the provincial government and Legal Aid.

That agreement would only last a year and could be terminated without cause or reason with 30 days written notice, and the funding would be determined solely by the Minister.

On top of several other issues flagged by Legal Aid Alberta, they said this agreement is heavily skewed in favour of the Minister, with minimal meaningful obligations on the part of the Minister,

"The Minster was fully aware that we would not have adequate time to respond as it was not reasonable to expect the Board to consider its terms, reasonably study its impacts on the organization, and by extension on vulnerable Albertans, and respond by the deadline imposed."

After consulting the Board of Legal Aid, they advised the Minister that their new agreement was unreasonable and that it was not fair to expect Legal Aid to make such an important decision on short notice.

"To do so would put the Board and its Chair at risk of failing to meet their fiduciary obligations to Legal Aid Alberta."

Callioux advised the Minister's office that due to this change in the agreement, their ability and mission to provide legal services to underprivileged Albertans is now compromised.

The Board for Legal Aid has requested a reply from the Minister's office to explain the rationale behind their decisions and justifications for making the changes without consultation with or any notice to Legal Aid Alberta.

"The proposed Grant Agreement erodes the independence of this organization and its ability to deliver services. At the core of the justice system in any well-functioning democracy is the independence of a healthy and functional Legal Aid system, which guarantees that no matter what the state charges a citizen with, that citizen will be represented by competent and independent counsel. There are many methods to deliver Legal Aid services. It can be done under a Society or as part of a legislated format. However, it is critical that whatever the format, the independence of Legal Aid must be sacrosanct. If it is not, the justice system will suffer significantly."

If a Governance Agreement isn't in place soon, as of 4:30 p.m. on July 9th, Legal Aid Alberta will not be able to issue any more certificates (the document issued by Legal Aid to a lawyer that authorizes them to act on behalf of a client).

Because of that, they can't help anyone get an Emergency Protection Order or access Duty Counsel. Due to that, Callioux said that Justice System may endure crippling challenges.

On top of that, the Provincial Government failed to pay the invoice from Legal Aid Alberta that was issued to them on April 1st.

"Roster lawyers can be assured that we expect the Government of Alberta will fund any certificate issued before the expiry of the Governance Agreement, as per section 18.2 of now expired agreement Governance Agreement. Even if work continues on that certificate, we expect that the Government of Alberta will discharge its obligations under the Governance Agreement and will provide funding until the certificate is concluded, regardless of what happens to Legal Aid Alberta," Callioux said in the statement.

Callioux has said that he wants the government to take a seat at the negotiating table to work out a new agreement.

The Criminal Defence Lawyers Association, the Criminal Trial Lawyers Association, the Southern Alberta Defence Lawyers' Association, and the Red Deer Criminal Lawyers Association released a combined response to the news on July 2nd.

"Our organizations were shocked and appalled to receive news from Legal Aid Alberta today about the government's failure to sign the new Legal Aid Governance Agreement. For over 50 years, a form of Governance Agreement such as the proposed by Legal Aid Alberta has ensured the operation of an independent organization providing legal service for the most vulnerable Albertans," the statement read.

"The government's unceremonious cancellation of the scheduled signing of that agreement was followed by silence before a last-minute ultimatum that would fundamentally change who controlled the delivery of legal aid services in Alberta."

They added that the impacts of this change will be far greater than simply affecting criminal defence matters.

"Legal Aid funding affects the administration of family law child welfare, and immigration matters as well."

They feel this decision will cause a complete breakdown of the judicial system that is already overtaxed and under-resourced.

"The impact will be felt more sharply by those overrepresented in the criminal justice system and more likely to be financially disadvantaged such as those who are LGBTG2S+, racialized, and mentally vulnerable."

The Alberta NDP also released a statement in response to this news.

"In a week, Albertans will lose access to Legal Aid. This means that vulnerable Albertans seeking legal assistance with family law, domestic violence and child welfare will no longer be able to retain legal counsel," said Irfan Sabir, the NDP Critic for Justice and Public Safety in the release. "Legal organizations have warned that this is an impending catastrophe that will have a profound impact on the entire justice system and the lives of Albertans in their time of crisis."

"It’s unconscionable that the UCP thinks Albertans escaping abuse and needing these services should be left without any support."

On Wednesday afternoon, Justice Minister Mick Amery responded via a written statement.

"Over the last nine years, Legal Aid Alberta's grant funding from the Alberta Government has almost doubled, growing from $66 million in Budget 2015 to $110 million in Budget 2024, with expenditures projected to be over $138 million this year. Obviously, this funding growth is unsustainable," the statement partially reads.

“Even more puzzling to our government is the fact that despite this massive increase in funding, Legal Aid Alberta is not materially expanding the number of clients it serves, nor is it being forthcoming with a credible explanation or details as to why this is the case."

The statement does not address Legal Aid Alberta's claims that the Justice Ministry suddenly halted negotiations, but does state that they've offered to extend the existing funding agreement unaltered while the ministry works with Legal Aid Alberta on a "new funding agreement with strengthened transparency and accountability measures."

“The funds our government has already provided Legal Aid Alberta in this budget year are more than sufficient to maintain a strong roster of lawyers as well as day-to-day operations in the coming months, pending finalization of the new funding agreement. Alberta’s government remains committed to ensuring Albertans have access to legal aid services.”

To learn more about Legal Aid Alberta and to stay up to date, click here.