Private defence lawyers in Manitoba are refusing to appear in bail courts across the province starting Monday.
About 150 defence lawyers will stop running bail hearings for a week, as they try to lobby the provincial government for a pay increase. The walkout comes amid rising tensions over Legal Aid pay rates that haven't gone up in 12 years for private lawyers, who handle the majority of court cases in Manitoba.
Gerri Wiebe, president of the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association of Manitoba, said the job action is expected to begin Jan. 13 and end Jan. 17.
It means all bail hearings will have to be handled entirely by staff lawyers employed by Legal Aid Manitoba, rather than private defence lawyers, who normally work on contract to represent Manitobans who have legal aid coverage.
"We only want to be treated fairly, we only want to be consulted, and we only want the (justice) minister to follow through on what he already promised to do," Wiebe said Friday.
The private defence lawyers say efforts to negotiate a pay raise with the provincial government have stalled, and there is no requirement for the government to negotiate with them, but they want a meeting with the justice minister.
They are paid a tariff rate for legal aid cases they take on, but they haven't received any cost-of-living pay increases since 2008 — the last time they went on strike.
The rates are set under provincial legislation and vary depending on the seriousness of each criminal case. The tariff is based on an $80 per hour rate, and the regulation limits how many hours of work can be spent on a particular case.
"We only want to be treated fairly, we only want to be consulted, and we only want the (justice) minister to follow through on what he already promised to do." – Gerri Wiebe, president of the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association of Manitoba
Defence lawyers end up spending more time on a case than they're paid for, Wiebe said, and since many Manitoba law firms are small businesses, lawyers' take-home pay is "much, much less than that."
"We're not going on a full strike in order to try to make the government acquiesce to our demands. What we're trying to do is call attention to the situation and essentially put the government's feet to the fire and say that they need to follow through on the commitment they made to talk to us," Wiebe said.
"The job action may escalate if we don't receive a response."
Private defence lawyers will not be representing new or existing clients in bail court for the week.
"We are trying as best as we possibly can to balance the interests of our clients, current and future, because our future clients are at risk if we can't be properly compensated," Wiebe said.
"But we also don't want to do it on the backs of clients that are currently in jail and are essentially going to be suffering as a result of our job action, so the best balance we could come up with at this stage was to limit the duration of the strike."
Wiebe said she expects staff Legal Aid lawyers may become overwhelmed with the volume of cases they'll have to deal with in bail court over the course of the week, but a spokesman for Legal Aid Manitoba said the organization has enough staff to handle it.
"We are trying as best as we possibly can to balance the interests of our clients, current and future, because our future clients are at risk if we can't be properly compensated." – Gerri Wiebe, president of the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association of Manitoba
"If all that is being contemplated is that they're not taking bail (matters) during the week of Jan. 13-17, we don't foresee there being a disruption in service," Sam Raposo said.
There are five Legal Aid staff lawyers working in Winnipeg's criminal duty counsel office. They and their legal articling students will be expected to run bails in Winnipeg over the next week.
Raposo said staff lawyers, rather than private lawyers, typically handle most bail court hearings outside of Winnipeg. Legal Aid has roughly 53 staff lawyers across the province.
In July, Wiebe met with Justice Minister Cliff Cullen. She said he committed to holding a meeting to discuss Legal Aid Services, but when Wiebe tried to schedule a followup meeting, she was told to wait until after the provincial election in September.
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.