Nick Avis. — Telegram file photo
Legal Aid in Newfoundland and Labrador is losing five lawyers and possibly three more, according to the commission’s chairman Nick Avis.
The commission is unclear whether three vacancies it has can be filled, but five others are gone for sure.
The commission’s budget has been cut by $1.5 million, but Avis pointed out there is $500,000 worth of increased operating expenses, including rent on two of the office spaces, that were not funded.
So in effect, he said the budget shortfall is $2 million.
Offices are rented through the public tender act.
”It’s not like we are picking deluxe accommodations,” Avis said.
As for the impact of cutting lawyers, he said staff will not be asked to drop their ethical obligations to meet certain standards.
“What we will see here is more delays,” he said.
He said because of other cuts, there will be delays in processing legal aid applications, delays in appeals of those applications and delays the courts.
A lawyer might be assigned a case, but it will be matter of when they can get to it.
He said the cuts will seriously impair the commission’s ability to deliver its services and with the increased funding in recent years, legal aid funding had not quite gotten where it should be.
The commission has 54 lawyers around the province and a total of 133 employees in all.
There are no human resources staff and a report the commission had done identified it should have a human resources staff of at least three people, Avis said.
The commission has asked government to reconsider the budget reduction, but Avis said he’s not especially hopeful.
He said his personal opinion is that the justice system is an easy target and often the hardest hit in times of restraint.
“The public doesn’t really understand what we do,” Avis said.
The commission had recommended to government it could save $550,000 by doing away with the choice of counsel in serious cases, such as murder. That money is fees to private lawyers chosen by accused.
However, the commission it can’t cut choice of counsel.
But still it’s being asked to absorb a $430,000 cut in professional services without cutting that program.
Avis said the villain in the whole debacle is the federal government, which has reduced funding to legal aid from 90 per cent in the 1970s to 15-20 per cent now.
Every year provincial justice ministers have met and sought federal support for legal aid.
Avis said when Tom Marshall was minister of justice, he made a special effort to advocate for legal aid federally, but it fell on deaf ears.
As for the suspension of legal aid lawyer Ray Kuszelewski, the area director for Gander, who spoke to CBC News Tuesday about justice cuts, Avis said there is a policy that the only person allowed to speak to the media is the chairman.
Avis said there had been a previous incident in which the lawyer spoke on behalf of the commission, the suspension is a matter of days, he has apologized and the matter will be revisited next week.