An Ontario legal-aid boycott broke through its Toronto beachhead Wednesday to include the defence bars of Kingston and Thunder Bay.
Lawyers representing the Criminal Lawyers' Association in both centres said that their colleagues unanimously believe that the legal-aid system is too starved of cash for them to continue propping it up.
"All 16 of the members of the CLA practising up here have said that until the government addresses its mind to the legal-aid program, we won't take a legal-aid certificate," Gil Labine, a Thunder Bay lawyer, said in an interview.
Mr. Labine said many of his clients are aboriginal people who are unable to pay for legal services. "The underfunding of legal aid is badly affecting our ability to defend them in serious legal problems," he said.
Almost all of the approximately 300 defence lawyers in the Toronto area with five years experience have joined the two-week-old boycott. They are no longer accepting serious cases such as homicides and prosecutions under guns-and-gangs legislation.
CLA president Frank Addario said Wednesday that the effects of the boycott will be difficult to measure in the first few weeks. However, "the first concrete effect is being felt in Thunder Bay, where there are two homicides and no lawyer willing to take the cases."
Mr. Labine said that there is a steady flow of homicides and manslaughter cases in his region. "The complexity of the cases has increased as the police and Crown resources increased, but there are inadequate resources to support the defence," he said.
"We take this step reluctantly. I have been doing this for 32 years, and I have never turned away a person holding a legal-aid certificate who needed legal help."
Michael Mandelcorn, a veteran Kingston defence lawyer, said the paltry amount legal-aid lawyers are given to spend on expert witnesses and trial preparation places their clients at a severe disadvantage.
"We are outgunned from the start," he said. "We can't do our job of challenging the Crown's case. The system is just out of whack.
"I have been a criminal lawyer for 22 years, and I don't turn away people because they are poor. But the legal-aid program as it was originally envisioned is no longer in existence. The cases we get in Kingston are complex and well-funded prosecutions. There are often highly paid Crown experts and two Crown attorneys. Legal aid can't match that."
In an interview last week, Attorney-General Chris Bentley, a former defence lawyer, said he has done everything he can to persuade his colleagues to increase funding for legal aid. Mr. Bentley blamed previous governments for consistently underfunding the plan.
Mr. Addario said that his members point out that three commissions appointed over the past couple of years to probe systemic problems within the Ontario justice system each urged better funding for experienced lawyers.
"Report after report has told Ontario governments they're breaking the promise," Mr. Addario said. "There is no joy whatsoever in the bar about telling the public the system is broken. It's a big disappointment that it has come to this.
"The problem can't be wished away. Legal aid is a liberal idea, like public education or universal health care. It's the government saying to people without money that poverty will not be the sole reference point when you are in a legal jam. That's the promise."