Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Legal Aid Top Priority for Albertans?

Forgive me for being cynical...and I sure hope I just don't have the "pulse of the province" on this one...but I'm having a tough time believing the numbers of a recent poll conducted for the Legal Aid Society of Alberta.

Albertan's Show Overwhelming Support for Legal Aid

As those of us who do significant amounts of Legal Aid work know, the remuneration is often minimal and there are a significant number of applicants who can't really afford to hire a lawyer, but can't qualify for Legal Aid.

Now, I will say that Southern Appeals Committee makes significant efforts to grant extra hours and other coverage extensions (where you show the need for it on a file and they can find the room in their budget), but at the end of the day, it remains very difficult to represent Legal Aid clients to your fullest ability when you are always running into tariff restrictions.

So, while it is a very encouraging statistic that "65% of respondents agreed that legal aid should be given the same funding priority as other vital social services such as health care, education, welfare, and child protection" if those same people were asked if they would cut back on certain health care and education budgets to give the Legal Aid Society some desperately needed additional funding I have serious doubts that the same level of support would be expressed.

I guess my concern is that the "support" that an apparent 96% of Albertans show for Legal Aid is abstract and ideological...almost everybody agrees that extensive, well-funded Legal Aid programs are a good idea. But when the time comes to actually put dollars behind the people who are desperately trying to provide the programs and services to Albertans on a daily basis those same people who think it's a good idea will be looking over their shoulders to find the people who ought to pay for it.

As I said, I hope I'm wrong...I hope this poll gives some traction to the Society when it goes to government officials to make its case for better funding. Who knows, given the current Federal Government approach to "law and order" issues, maybe these results can even help to convince the very soon to be chosen new Premier to make Legal Aid a priority in the overall push to improve the justice system.

We'll keep our finger's crossed...

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Are Animal Cruelty Laws Too Soft?

Debate has erupted across the nation on the heels of a rather disturbing allegation of animal cruelty against two young men in Didsbury.

Animal Cruelty Allegation

A dog was put down immediately by an attending vet upon observing the extent of the massive injuries it had suffered from being apparently beaten and then bound and dragged behind a car by the neck.

Petitions have shown up in local businesses and on the internet as well as some estimated 100 people attended the accused's first court appearance to try to bring public awareness to the issue.

The fact is that no matter how bad the allegation, animal cruelty is only a "straight summary conviction" offence and as such the penalties are limited to 6 months in jail or a $2,000.00 fine or both [s. 446]. Many animal advocates think this is just way too light.

Now, I won't put any opinion of my own out on this as I don't think it appropriate for a criminal lawyer to be lobbying one way or another on penalties for criminal offences. My job is to assist clients who are subject to the Criminal Code, not advocate to strengthen or weaken its consequences.

That being said, for the sake of fostering debate, I would point out that had these boys been accused of the exact same conduct, but the animal was "cattle" as defined by the Code (any bovine, horse, mule, ass, pig, sheep or goat) instead of a dog, they would be facing a "straight indictable" offence with a potential sentence of up to 5 years in jail [s. 444].

Seems to me there is a pretty vast disparity between these two sections and it is hard to understand why. Obviously, history would tell us that "cattle" are animals owned for survival / livelihood whereas other animals would be more classically seen as mere pets. Is such a distinction valid in today's society? I leave it to be debated.

Interestingly, legislation had already been proposed to increase penalties for animal cruelty to 5 years or $10,000.00, but according to Didsbury area MP Myron Thompson, it was unable to be passed as a result of the call of the last election.

Could be in an ironic twist that the alleged actions of these two teens will be the impetus behind a quick passage of new tougher animal cruelty legislation that might otherwise have fallen by the wayside...