PHOTO: The Palais de Justice in Montreal. PHOTO BY JOHN KENNEY /Montreal Gazette file photo
“The Quebec criminal justice system is collapsing because one of its main pillars, access to justice, is in jeopardy,” Elizabeth Ménard, president of the Association des avocats de la défence de Montréal, wrote Monday in an open letter to Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette. “This issue, which is fundamental in a free and democratic society and which seemed so dear to you during the last election campaign, is being undermined because the derisory legal aid tariffs are hindering lawyers from representing the most vulnerable in society, for lack of means.”
Most defence lawyers with cases scheduled to be before a judge on Monday asked that they be carried over to a later date. The same is expected to happen on Tuesday. Defence lawyers at the Montreal courthouse did represent clients in urgent matters, including the first court appearances for many accused. A person charged with a crime in Montreal is required to make their first appearance before a judge within 24 hours of their arrest.
According to Ménard’s letter, the current fee structure for lawyers who take on legal aid cases “provides for a flat fee that varies between $415 and $600 for all services rendered.” The fee structure was last revised in 1996.
The fixed amount covers every aspect of a case, from an accused’s first court appearance to the end, whether it comes as the result of a quick guilty plea or a lengthy trial that ends 30 months later with many court dates involved
Ménard wrote that the association is “calling for a massive reinvestment in the justice system in order to improve fees for lawyers in private practice who deal with legal aid files, which represent 75 per cent of all files authorized in criminal matters.”
She also pointed out that lawyers are abandoning legal aid mandates for lack of adequate compensation. This forces defendants to represent themselves, including people with mental health problems, drug addicts and people with little education. This situation contributes to delays at courthouses already plagued with the problem of a shortage of courtroom clerks.
“While the flavour of the day is nationalism and the chosen theme of your party’s last convention is “pride”, know that Quebec ranks last in terms of legal aid tariffs,” Ménard wrote. “Ontario, which is also at the bottom of the ranking but just ahead of us, offers rates 2 to 3 times higher.”