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Alberta Justice cuts could come with unforeseen costs, lawyer warns
EDMONTON -- An Alberta Justice plan to cut one-third of Legal Services staff and outsource to private firms will ultimately end up costing taxpayers more, says a lawyer who works in the department.
The lawyer, who spoke with CTV News Edmonton on condition of anonymity, works with around 270 others who deal with various provincial legal matters like education, infrastructure and other areas outside of criminal law.
“I am one of possibly 90 who are expecting to lose their jobs in January as a result of the budget announcement that was made about a month ago," the lawyer said.
“I’m very concerned about the public and about the government’s ability to properly look after the citizens of this province. The various teams on the civil legal services division look after everything from the environment, to healthcare, to the protection of vulnerable people; whether that’s children or adults who don’t have capacity."
The plan to farm out some of that work to private law firms should be of concern to Albertans, the lawyer added.
“The work that we do can’t just stop being done," they said. "The province is going to continue to get sued, environmental mechanisms are still going to have to be followed and overseen, children are going to continue to be apprehended. Elderly who don’t have capacity are still going to need to have the support of government bodies if they don’t have family who can look after them.”
LESS EXPERIENCE, HIGHER COST?
The source says salaried lawyers can perform those jobs for far cheaper than an outside practice.
“They are a lot more expensive and typically not as well-versed on government business and the corporate knowledge that we do have, after having worked in the government for some time,” said the lawyer.
Private firms could charge hourly rates as high as two to three times more than they are now, they said.
“I think if this is purely a fiscal measure, it makes far more sense to just let us do our jobs rather than farming the business out," the lawyer said.
"I’ve heard our notional billing rate is something like $170 an hour. If you’re looking at a senior lawyer in the government, of which there are many, they could be billing as much as $400 to $500 an hour, so the taxpayer’s getting our services at a pretty good rate I would say”
There are some matters that the lawyer says private firms might not want to cover at all—namely, child welfare cases.
“The lawyers I’ve talked to on that team talk about having difficulties with…not being able to sleep at night or feeling very sad—crying during the day—because the files that they are reading are very tragic."
A $20M REDUCTION
The lawyer confirmed details in a white paper draft obtained by CTV News Edmonton that presented arguments, options and potential cost-cutting measures to the Ministry of Justice in advance of the job cuts.
In it, ideas to mitigate a $20-million targeted reduction include lawyers working part-time hours or taking salary rollbacks.
“My understanding is any kind of creative solutions that were presented were shot down and the message that we’ve been given is 'the budget is the budget is the budget,' and that’s what we’re stuck with, and therefore 90 lawyers have to go," the lawyer said.
Asked about the cuts and concerns at a rural policing event in Leduc County, Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer said the move would not cost money.
“No, no it won't, that’s why we're going to have budget reductions in our department. We’re going to continue to meet the priorities of Albertans and that’s what we’re working through right now,” said Schweitzer.
He added that as part of those priorities, there are many jobs sitting vacant and soon opening in the criminal prosecutions division that lawyers facing cuts in January could apply for.
The lawyer said it would be a difficult transition for many of the lawyers in legal services without having the experience of trying criminal cases.
They said it's made tougher by the fact that many of the jobs being lost are in Edmonton, while the prosecution positions are in rural areas.
“Unless the minister is expecting us to uproot our families and move all over the province, the fact that there are opportunities in the Crown prosecutor’s office doesn’t help us.”
The Justice Ministry is expected to reveal further details about the proposed cuts in January.