Public defender plan disparaged

By Pamela Eadie

The introduction of a public defender legal system would be “nothing short of disastrous,” says a prominent Ottawa lawyer.

Lawrence Greenspon says those requiring legal aid will not benefit from the Attorney General’s recent introduction of a bill that would give Legal Aid Ontario expanded power to hire salaried “public defenders.”

“The low income client is going to be poorly served by an overworked, under-funded public defender, and when that happens a person doesn’t get a proper defense,” says Greenspon.

Although the new legislation would not prevent defense lawyers from doing legal aid work, Ottawa lawyers have a number of concerns.

“Public defender systems have been notoriously incapable of providing quality services because of overwork,” says Michael Neville.

The move towards a public defender system comes after years of bitter dispute between the Ontario government and many lawyers who say they are not paid enough for legal aid work. Some Ontario lawyers have recently stopped accepting legal aid cases and staged boycotts at courthouses in protest of what they see as unfair financial compensation.

Several lawyers and their associations have expressed concern that a public defender system would be more costly and limit the choice of those requiring legal services.

“I can’t imagine how it wouldn’t be more expensive, without even getting into the quality of services,” says Neville.

James O’Brien, co-chair of the Ontario Bar Association Task Force on Legal Aid Tariff Reform, says a key feature of the current certificate system is that clients have some choice in who represents them, and a full-fledged public defender system would take this away.

“Loss of choice is a very significant issue,” says Vern Krishna, an Ottawa lawyer and head of the Law Society of Upper Canada. “It goes to our basic legal tradition that the government prosecutes, and on the other side, the accused has a right to chose independent counsel.”

Kathleen Gowanlock describes herself as one of the few Ottawa lawyers who might normally support the idea of a public defender system. However, she questions the timing of the government’s move.

“There were numerous studies done in the last 10 years and it seemed the contention was that the public defender was just not cost-effective, and wasn’t going to provide the best representation, so I find the timing of this really suspect. It almost seems like a retaliation against lawyers,“ says Gowanlock.

O’Brien says it’s disappointing the government has resorted to an alternative that wasn’t even on the table.

Ralph Steinberg, president of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association thinks the recent move is an odd reaction to what he says are the legitimate concerns of lawyers. “It doesn’t appear the government wants to talk about the issues,” he says.

“Since when has the government taking over anything been more cost-effective at delivering quality service?” Lawyer Gary Barnes says he is unconcerned about the legislation. He calls it an attempt to influence the ongoing bargaining between the government and lawyers.

But Greenspon isn’t so sure. “I think they’re serious about this public defender system, and I think we need to take it very seriously because it impacts the entire population,” he says.

Greenspon believes the government is doing it simply because they can.

“They can get away with it. Who’s going to argue against them? It’s going to be the damn lawyers, and their sorry criminal clients. I’m not sure who the public has less sympathy for.”