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Members of a Calgary defence lawyers group are halting work they do for free to pressure the Alberta government to boost Legal Aid funding.

The Criminal Defence Lawyers Association wants a 65-per-cent increase over four years, starting with a 40-per-cent bump this year, president Ian Savage wrote in an open letter to Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley this week.

He said he penned the letter “with a complete sense of desperation.”

“Like a shackled and starving foster child locked in a filthy closet for years, the Legal Aid program is a neglected and degraded shadow of its true potential and is robbing poor and disadvantaged Albertans of their futures,” Mr. Savage wrote.

“Your government knows exactly what is going on with its starving hidden child, but prefers to feed and care for its more attractive and socially appealing bigger brothers and sisters: the police, the prosecution service and the jails.”

Legal aid funding was set at $89-million in last month’s provincial budget, but Mr. Savage said $150-million is needed to run the program properly.

“Today we will begin withdrawing our unpaid services and expect the government to pay the true cost of the justice system.”

Mr. Savage said Legal Aid has been underfunded for a long time, but his group decided it needed to take a strong stand after last month’s provincial budget.

“That’s just a complete slap in the face,” he said in an interview on Tuesday.

The NDP believed legal aid was being underfunded when it came into power in 2015 and has since increased funding by about 40 per cent, Ms. Ganley said.

“At times like these, where other things in my budget haven’t seen nearly that kind of increase, it’s definitely seen the most significant increase,” she said.

“They’ve been doing quite a good job and obviously we’ve been able to increase their funding such that they’re able to keep up with the workload.”

Some of the increase is due to the economic downturn, as there are more people with a low enough income to qualify for Legal Aid.

The association said it has a number of actions planned this week and next to put pressure on the government.

“We’re just going to keep adding to the list of action items until they all come to a boil,” Mr. Savage said.

The first is to start moving cases from the Case Management Office – a counter at the courthouse where justices of the peace handle logistics – to courtrooms with judges.

Defence lawyers can spend two to three hours a day dealing with the management office and that time will be more apparent if they appear before a court, Mr. Savage said.

Ms. Ganley said it’s too soon to say what impact those tactics may have, but she questioned whether the group should have compared the program to a neglected child.

“I’m not sure that’s the best way to advocate for something.”

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