For months, the justice system has regularly made headlines due to the severe understaffing issues affecting it: postponed hearings and delayed trials have unfortunately become commonplace, eroding public confidence in our justice system.
Despite themselves, legal aid lawyers had to exercise their right to strike once again during the holiday season in order to resolve the stalemate that persists in their negotiations with Quebec. Citizens have thus been deprived of their right to fair representation.
It has been more than three years since the collective agreement for legal aid lawyers expired. Three years during which we are negotiating, in good faith, with Quebec.
The Legal Services Board and our employers make no bones about it: they agree with us. They struggle to attract young graduates from law schools. They are often faced with the departure of experienced lawyers who have succumbed to the best conditions offered by the Crown or elsewhere. Each week, they encounter the inevitable difficulties in filling the positions thus left vacant. Lawyers in the field are working overtime to prevent disruptions in service, of which our clients would be the first victims.
While our counterparts at the bargaining table readily recognize the need to maintain pay parity between legal aid lawyers and their colleagues from the Criminal and Penal Prosecutions Branch, the situation is different for the representatives of the Conseil of the treasury who have refused, for three years already, to grant our employers the mandates allowing the maintenance of this parity.
Pay parity between legal aid and the DPCP was introduced in 1986.
Thus, with each renewal of the collective agreement, this wage parity has been renewed, regardless of the government in power.
However, now the government of François Legault stubbornly refuses to maintain this wage parity. The leaders of the Treasury Board are not able to explain how things would have changed to the point of justifying lower remuneration from now on for those who are responsible for defending the most vulnerable.
How do you explain that in the past, the two ministers responsible for our file, Sonia LeBel and Simon Jolin-Barrette, clearly came out in favor of maintaining pay parity between the DPCP and legal aid lawyers? Yet it is this wage parity that these two people are now refusing to renew.
The work and commitment of legal aid lawyers has never been more necessary to maintain accessible justice for all: for minor children, women who are victims of domestic violence, road accident victims and labour, people with mental health issues and defendants are entitled to the highest quality representation. Many vulnerable families will have to resort to it in the coming months: some will be subject to renovictions, others will have to resort to a protection plan for a loved one with a loss of autonomy.
The justice system has reached a breaking point. It is no longer possible for the government and Minister Jolin-Barrette to ignore the serious problems of underfunding which today make it difficult to maintain quality justice for Quebecers.
By imposing lower remuneration on lawyers responsible for representing and defending hundreds of thousands of litigants eligible for our services, Quebec would open the way to a major exodus that would threaten the maintenance of our organization’s operations – in addition to allow unfair competition between prosecution and defense within the public realm.