After five days of refusing to appear in bail courts across Manitoba, private defence lawyers have ended their job action.
The walkout was meant to be temporary, and the roughly 150 defence lawyers who participated wanted to minimize consequences to their clients, said Criminal Defence Lawyers Association of Manitoba president Gerri Wiebe.
"I think that we made our point," Wiebe said Friday.
"Our position at this stage wasn’t, ‘Give us what we want or we’ll just quit working.’ Our point was to draw attention to the issues, and we felt like a week was long enough to do that."
The walkout began Monday morning and ended at 5 p.m. Friday.
Initially, private lawyers refused to represent new and existing clients when they appeared in bail court, but the lawyers had an ethical obligation to continue representing existing clients who were re-appearing in bail court while their charges were pending.
It’s unknown how many people were affected by the job action.
Sam Raposo of Legal Aid Manitoba said the job action had "no impact" outside of Winnipeg, but that it did cause tension between Legal Aid staff lawyers and private lawyers.
"Inside of Winnipeg, we had some difficulty and there was some confusion as we had to explain to private bar practitioners that when they have open certificates and their matters appear on the docket, that they have an ethical and legal obligation to attend. Once that was sorted out, there weren’t that many difficulties," he said.
New clients accounted for a minority of cases on bail court dockets this week, Raposo said.
Raposo and Legal Aid chairman Allan Fineblit met Thursday with Wiebe.
Both Wiebe and Raposo said it was a positive meeting.
Wiebe said the justice minister’s office did not reach out to her as a result of the job action.
"This was a targeted job action. Are we going to go into a full-on strike where we will stay away until our demands are met? Well, that remains to be seen... our issues haven’t gone away," Wiebe said.
"We certainly aren’t eliminating the possibility of further job action, but for now, we’ve accomplished our short-term goal."
The office of Justice Minister Cliff Cullen released a statement Friday evening.
"We are encouraging the (Criminal) Defence Lawyers Association of Manitoba to continue to meet with the new Legal Aid management council to discuss their services and the tariff rates, and we are optimistic they will come to a resolution," a spokesperson wrote in an email.
"This is a new way of doing business, and we believe it will be more effective in addressing their concerns."
Private lawyers work on contract for Legal Aid Manitoba, taking on cases for accused persons who receive legal aid coverage.
They are paid a tariff rate that is set under provincial legislation, based on an $80 per hour rate that hasn’t been raised in 12 years, even to account for cost of living. The last time the rates were raised was in 2008, after private criminal defence lawyers went on strike.
The justice department has said it is reviewing a report authored by Fineblit that makes several recommendations to how legal aid is delivered. Among the recommendations is that the pay rates be increased and set by Legal Aid Manitoba in the future, rather than by the provincial government.
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.
Updated on Saturday, February 8, 2020 at 9:13 AM CST: Adds justice minister statement