Quebec legal aid lawyers voted overwhelmingly in favor of a strike after the Quebec government refused to pay them equal to that of crown prosecutors, which has been the case for three decades.
Quebec’s 400 legal aid lawyers, whose collective agreement expired in December 2019, have given the three unions that represent them the green light over the past two weeks to call a strike that would total three days.
The Quebec government offered legal aid lawyers a six percent raise over three years, the same amount given to civil servants, an offer that was flatly and immediately snubbed. Legal aid lawyers, who now earn between $59,000 and $120,000 annually, are asking for a 10% increase over four years, as Quebec crown prosecutors received in 2020.
Justine Lambert Boulianne
“Pay parity between the Crown and legal aid lawyers has been recognized for at least 30 years,” said Justine Lambert-Boulianne, president of the union of legal aid lawyers in Montreal. “It was in the collective agreements in the past, written into the agreements by adding trailer clauses. And since December 31, 2019, the last day of the agreement, parity has been recognized. But since January 1, 2020, this was no longer the case. We don’t know why. We are frustrated, completely frustrated.
According to Marie-Ève Fillion, spokesperson for the Ministry of Executive Council and Treasury Board Secretariat, the “working conditions” of legal aid lawyers are different from those of Crown prosecutors. “These two groups have a different trading regime that can lead to different outcomes,” Fillion said.
The working relationship between Quebec legal actors and the provincial government has been marked by bitter and protracted conflicts since the turn of the century. Quebec government lawyers and notaries reached an agreement this spring with the provincial government after countless bargaining sessions over a seven-year period that ultimately led to Canada’s longest strike by public servants.
The judges of the Court of Quebec and the judges of the municipal courts did little better. There have been eight judicial compensation committees since 1998, and the government challenged its recommendations in all but three. In almost every case, judges have had to take legal action to compel the provincial government to comply with the recommendations of the independent committee.
Even the Crown prosecutors of Quebec did not obtain in 2020 what had been recommended by an independent committee of three members. A majority of the expert panel recommended significant increases to reduce the gap that exists with peers in the rest of Canada. The committee recommended a 3.5% increase for the next four years to 2022, plus a maximum of 1.75% increase in the cost of living from 2020 to 2022 — an increase that would have narrowed the gap of 13.7% that currently exists between what Quebec Crown prosecutors now earn compared to their average Canadian counterparts. Instead, the provincial government offered a 10% increase over four years. The case is now before the courts.
Quebec legal aid lawyers, who work under the aegis of the Commission des services juridiques (CSJ), the provincial body that oversees the legal aid system, agreed on the majority of the non-monetary clauses, said Laurence Côté-Lebrun, legal counsel, one of 16 who works for Gaspésie, Bas-Saint-Laurent (Bas-Saint-Laurent) and Îles-de-la-Madeleine.
“There are few issues left in dispute other than compensation,” Côté-Lebrun said. “Most of the non-monetary clauses have been settled, at least at the negotiating table. But we have been negotiating for two years and only recently received a salary offer. It’s rather disappointing because we had many negotiation sessions with our employer, who kept telling us that he had no mandate from Treasury Board since the funding of our organization depends on Treasury Board. We are now awaiting another proposal from Treasury Board.
But Spokesperson Fillion said legal aid lawyers are not government employees, but rather CSJ employees, and the government does not negotiate with legal aid lawyers. The Treasury Board gave the negotiation mandate to the CSJ, added Fillion. “During the last round of negotiations, the value of the agreement with the CSJ lawyers was equivalent to that of the agreements in the public and parapublic sectors,” said Fillion. “The negotiation allowed the lawyers of the SCJ, following compromises on their part, to approach the salaries of Crown prosecutors at the top of the salary scale.
This is not how the permanent lawyers of legal aid in Quebec see it. Lambert-Boulianne does not understand why the Quebec government has decided to do an about-face, a position that will lead to challenges in retaining staff and recruiting new talent.
“It’s also a matter of principle,” Lambert-Boulianne said. “Why should the lawyer who prosecutes be paid more than the lawyer who defends the accused? There is no reason behind it. There is no justification. »
There is also a lack of consistency in the government’s position, Côté-Lebrun said. She points out that the government has taken steps over the past year to establish specialized courts to deal with sexual and domestic violence and that it is trying to improve the youth protection system. These are laudable goals, added Côté-Lebrun, but it will undoubtedly mean more work for legal aid lawyers who are already strained to cope with the current workload.
“We are there for the people,” Côté-Lebrun remarked. “We serve economically and socially vulnerable people. These are people who need help. We are very important to the justice system. So from a consistency point of view, if we want competent justice professionals for the volume of business we have, we must have good salary conditions.
There were about 204,000 applications for legal aid in the 2020-21 fiscal year, down from nearly 229,000 applications made in the previous fiscal year, according to the CSJ’s latest annual report. The number of cases handled by CSJ legal aid lawyers increased from 92,836 to 75,957 during the same period. Almost 35% of cases handled by SCJ legal aid lawyers involved criminal and penal matters, almost 13% family law matters and the remainder civil matters.
The Quebec legal aid system is grappling with major problems. Last year, a group of independent experts called for sweeping reforms to the administration of Quebec’s legal aid system to simplify the process of applying for legal aid. But those issues weren’t addressed at the negotiating table, Lambert-Boulianne said.
Quebec legal aid lawyers have not yet decided how they will proceed with the work stoppages. It could be half-day walkouts or an all-day strike, but the goal is to put pressure on the Quebec government in an election year, Côté-Lebrun said.