‘There’s so much speculation’; Questions remain about reasons behind Legal Aid layoffs

News source from CTV News

She’s known as Legal Aid Leah.

Leah Steuart has been a legal assistant with the Legal Aid Saskatchewan’s criminal office for nearly 10 years. She says her job is busy but she loves it and takes it seriously.

Steuart starts the day by going to Saskatoon Provincial Court where she’s often the first point of legal contact for people who were arrested the night before or over the weekend. On average she’ll see at least 15 new people each day, and that’s not counting family members and friends of accused people who ask for her help in the hallways.

Steuart is passionate about helping others; she says her personal experience in the foster care system and dealing with drug and alcohol abuse allows her to understand her clients and their families.

“I firmly believe in listening to somebody and making a difference,” she says.

Steuart communicates with Crown prosecutors, makes a release plan, facilitates resources for clients such as a detox bed, and helps the legal aid lawyer.

Then there’s the work beyond her job description that she does on her own time – the time she drove a client to detox, took another clothes shopping at Giant Tiger, or organized a family meeting before a client went to rehab.

On Aug. 31, she’ll lose her job.

“I was devastated and heartbroken, not just because of my job,” Steuart says outside provincial court. “The fear that I have is for all the clients and all the people that we’ve grown to know and grown to care about.”

Her position is one of nine being cut: two legal assistants, two eligibility officers, one administrative position and a legal director are being laid off. Three duty counsel lawyer positions are not being filled, says the duty counsel lawyer and vice-president of the union, Deb Hopkins.

“What is happening here is wrong because it’s bad for our clients and that’s what I care about,” she says.

Legal Aid Saskatchewan provides criminal and family legal services to low-income people who are often marginalized with mental health and addictions issues. Steuart says Legal Aid staff build relationships with clients and their families and often represent generations of one family.

“(The cuts) are sad. It’s like a death,” she says.

This is macabre, provincial court judge says

Saskatoon Provincial Court Judge Barry Singer called the current situation at Legal Aid “macabre” and asked for a message to be passed along to CEO Craig Goebel.

The comments were made on July 19 in provincial docket court after several adjournments so Legal Aid’s director could assess the merits of the client’s cases, according to Val Harvey, a private lawyer on contract with Legal Aid.

“This is macabre. We dealt with one matter that was private counsel. Nothing else got dealt with this morning,” Singer said. “It’s systemic and I understand that it’s a shortage of lawyers and trying to work around that, but these guys are sitting in the can on all that stuff.

He then asked if Harvey would send a memo to Goebel about his “dissatisfaction.”

“I sit all over the province. Other offices don’t have the same problem, other accused don’t have the same problem, other prosecution offices don’t have the same problem. Somebody is picking on you guys,” he said.

When Harvey said the situation is dire and only going to get worse Singer replied, “Well, it is dire. And, none of us, it’s no one else’s fault but the commission’s head office.”

‘I was stunned’

Many people CTV News has talked to in the Saskatoon legal community have expressed shock and concern with the announcement of layoffs. Sheila Whelan, who worked in the legal field for 40 years and retired as a provincial court judge last year, says she’s now worried about the future of Legal Aid.

“I was stunned. It just didn’t seem to be a well-considered decision,” she says. “I wanted to know more. I wanted to know the background – why was this decision being made? What was the plan? How are these changes going to be implemented?”

She says she couldn’t find answers to those questions and so her concerns grew.

Whelan wants the cuts reversed. She saw Legal Aid staff at work during her time on the bench and describes them as hardworking, committed and innovative people with a lack of resources.

“I think the reason there’s so much speculation is because it doesn’t make sense and it hasn’t been thoroughly explained,” she says.

Personnel issues

Hopkins says two union executive members were told by a “high ranking government official” on June 28 that personnel issues are the reason behind the cuts.

Goebel did not respond to that claim and declined an interview with CTV News.

Of the six women in support staff positions that are losing their jobs, half have filed a complaint with either the Law Society of Saskatchewan or the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission, Hopkins says.

The complaints stem from allegations of sexual harassment and abusive and offensive language from a previous Legal Aid director, as detailed in the complaint to the law society.

Employees inside one of the Saskatoon offices say the unresolved complaints, which date back five years, have caused conflict and dysfunction in the office. The person named in the complaint no longer works at Legal Aid.

Steuart is one of eight women who signed on to the complaint before the law society.

“I think that this definite part of the dissolution of our office had to do with personnel issues that management just thought would go away,” she says.

Fear of the dismantling of Legal Aid

There is also concern the cuts are the first step toward the dismantling of Legal Aid Saskatchewan.

Hopkins says the same two union executive members were told by the same “high ranking government official” that an emergency meeting was scheduled in March to discuss shutting down the criminal and family Legal Aid offices in Saskatoon. She says the meeting was cancelled the same day the union learned about it.

Goebel, Saskatchewan Justice Minister Don Morgan and the Saskatchewan Legal Aid Commission board chair Michelle Ouellette all declined interviews with CTV News.

In emails, all three say Legal Aid Saskatchewan will not be privatized. Goebel added the cuts will not be reversed.

Morgan says Legal Aid is separate and independent from the Ministry of Justice, and Morgan does not determine operating decisions made by the commission. An emailed statement attributed to Morgan says, “I know that Legal Aid Saskatchewan is committed to the staff-based model.”

Remand rate

When the cuts were announced earlier this summer Goebel said in an emailed statement he would not discuss the reason behind them because it was based on operational issues.

“We are doing this to increase flexibility in relation to present and future needs of clients, particularly as it relates to bail and remand,” he wrote in July.

Hopkins and others CTV News spoke with take issue with that, pointing to a Statistics Canada report that shows Saskatoon has among the lowest remand rates in Canada.

Hopkins calls the reason “discouraging” because two years ago she spearheaded the Early Resolution Project, which sees a Legal Aid lawyer meet with a Crown prosecutor at 8:15 a.m. each weekday with the goal of resolving first appearances scheduled for that day.

Hopkins says the project has proven successful in its goal of helping people as early as possible so clients spend as little time in custody as possible.

“(It’s) demoralizing and I feel like I’ve been double crossed,” Hopkins says.

While Ouellette declined an interview with CTV News, she did send a page-long emailed statement. Part of it says the commission is aware and supportive of management’s actions.

“The Commission has complete confidence in the ability of our CEO and management team to lead the organization and we support their efforts to improve the delivery of legal services to the clients the organization serves,” Ouellette wrote.

Part two of CTV Saskatoon’s series on the layoffs at Legal Aid airs and will be published Thursday. That story will look at the effects of the cuts on clients and finances, as well as how Legal Aid will operate going forward.

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