An association of criminal defence lawyers has opted not to strike this week — despite 100 per cent of its membership in support of taking job action over frozen Legal Aid Manitoba wages.
The Criminal Defence Lawyers Association of Manitoba confirmed Monday Justice Minister Cliff Cullen’s office reached out to the group over the weekend to organize a meeting at the end of the month.
A meeting between officials wasn’t a condition to suspend action, but association president Gerri Wiebe said the decision was made "in good faith" and hopes the province takes a similar tack Jan. 27.
"We take the impact of job action very seriously, on both our clients and the justice system as a whole and we will explore every viable option to be treated fairly," said Wiebe, a defence lawyer at Bueti Wasyliw Wiebe Law.
The $80-per-hour rate hasn’t been adjusted to account for the cost of living since their last strike prompted one in 2008.
In an effort to negotiate a pay increase with the province, about 150 defence lawyers had planned to stop appearing at bail hearings this week; compensation rates for lawyers in private practice, who handle the majority of Legal Aid court cases in Manitoba, haven't increased in 12 years.
Lawyers represented by CDLAM are contracted to represent defendants who qualify for legal aid support. Although, Wiebe said they aren’t compensated for all of their duties — including consent releases, in which lawyers must prepare evidence to prove their client should be let out on bail.
In 2018, the association recommended the province compensate lawyers for work on consent releases. Wiebe noted the province didn’t comply then, nor has it complied with any suggestions put forward to improve the model for years.
Provincial legislation currently requires that at least once every two years, tariffs paid to lawyers contracted by Legal Aid Manitoba be reviewed.
The process for setting rates for such services will be on the agenda during the meeting with CDLAM, a provincial spokesperson said in a statement Monday. Cullen was not immediately made available for an interview.
The spokesperson added that Manitoba Justice is committed to working with its partners "to ensure timely access to justice."
Meanwhile, Wiebe said the association wants a seat at the table if the province plans to alter the current model. "We deliver between 60 to 70 per cent of legal aid services in this province and we want to have a say in how that looks," Wiebe said.
Defence lawyer Christopher Gamby said Monday that funding Legal Aid is critical in order to provide marginalized defendants representation and prevent wrongful convictions.
Gamby said that some private-practice lawyers have been pivoting to the public sector due to the financial discrepancy between staff pay rates and compensation for lawyers who do contract work.
"We need to be properly funded in order to properly do our jobs," added Gamby, who practises with Pinx and Company.
In 2018-19, private lawyers closed 24,718 legal matters — 69 per cent of the total Legal Aid Manitoba cases closed during that period.
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.
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