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Federal lawyers’ union says low pay contributing to ‘crisis’ in hiring, retention, court delays

26-04-2018

Ursula Hendel, president of the Association of Justice Counsel

 

The union leader representing 2,600 federal government lawyers says Ottawa’s persistent failure to pay competitive compensation is contributing to lacklustre lawyer recruitment, and severe staff shortages in major cities across the country — as well as to court delays and criminal charges being stayed for violating the Supreme Court’s speedy trial deadlines.

 

Ursula Hendel, president of the Association of Justice Counsel (AJC), spoke with The Lawyer’s Daily shortly before she testified before the Commons Human Resources Committee April 25 in support of amending the Federal Public Sector Labour Relations Act to restore binding arbitration for federal unions — a dispute resolution mechanism that had been removed by the predecessor Conservative government. The AJC’s three-year collective agreement expired in May 2014, and the union is awaiting the outcome of consensual binding conciliation after spending nearly three years of fruitless negotiations with successive governments.

 

The federal Treasury Board is arguing for a 1.25 per cent cost-of-living increase in each of years one, two and four of a four-year contract with its lawyers, with 2.25 per cent increase in year three.


However, the AJC is seeking significant catchup “market adjustments” to propel the pay of federal lawyers, as compared to their provincial counterparts (now in sixth or seventh place as compared to their provincial counterparts, according to the union), back up to second or third place, behind Ontario Crowns. Federal Crowns’ pay also significantly lags that of provincial prosecutors in Alberta, B.C. and Quebec. (For example, the main federal working-level prosecutors (LP2) maximum pay of $137,866 per year is lower by 31 per cent than the $199,149 annual pay rate for comparable Ontario prosecutors (CC-3), the AJC says.)


Consequently federal lawyers in many major centres are departing in droves, leaving behind overworked and stressed colleagues to carry an even larger load, Hendel said.


She noted that in the past two years the B.C. regional office of the federal Department of Justice (DOJ) has shrunk from approximately 200 to 140 lawyers who handle immigration, tax, civil litigation and other non-criminal matters. Even junior lawyers are leaving because they can’t afford to live in Vancouver and pay off their student loans.


“We call it the graveyard,” Hendel said. “If you talk to management [in B.C.] … we agree that we’re in a crisis, and management is desperate to try to solve it.”


She said efforts by DOJ management in Vancouver to staunch the outgoing tide of lawyers include offering leaves of absence to those who depart for provincial prosecutions or the private sector “in the blind hope that they’ll hate their new job and they’ll come back to the DOJ.” However, “no one expects it to be an effective strategy,” she added.


The fallout from short-staffing — which Hendel maintains is caused by poor pay and frozen hiring budgets — has prompted stern admonitions from the bench. For example, when he threw out heroin-importation charges last January, Justice Paul O’Marra sitting in Brampton, Ont., said he was “joining the chorus of … judicial condemnation about the period of time it has taken the federal Prosecution Service of Canada to complete the disclosure process to permit the parties to proceed and/or move the matter along in non-complex importing cases.” Earlier this month the Toronto Star also revealed that since the Jordan case set timelines in July 2016 for the s. 11(b) Charter right to a speedy trial, 21 narcotics prosecutions have been stayed by judges or federal prosecutors for undue delay in Brampton — one of the country’s busiest criminal courts.


“We’re under stress in almost all jurisdictions, but it’s acute in the major centres, [such as] Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, Edmonton,” Hendel said. “If we can remedy pay, if we can improve our [lawyer] complement, the workload issue might attenuate naturally.”
 

Hendel, a prosecutor with the Public Prosecution Service of Canada (PPSC), noted that as a result of the Jordan imperative, provincial governments are hiring additional prosecutors (including 32 in Ontario, 52 in Quebec and 50 in Alberta). A significant number of those prosecutors will be poached from the ranks of federal prosecutors, she said.


She suggested to keep pace, the PPSC should be creating 22 additional positions for federal prosecutors: six in Ontario; six in Quebec; and 10 in Alberta.


Treasury Board spokesperson Isabelle Tessier told The Lawyer’s Daily “the Government of Canada is committed to reaching agreements that are fair and reasonable for employees and for Canadians.” Tessier said average public service salaries are set to keep up with the market in order to maintain the government's ability to recruit and retain qualified employees. “Wage increases are determined based on several factors, such as labour market and economic trends, as well as affordability based on the state of the Canadian economy,” she explained. “Salaries for represented employees are established through good faith negotiations with unions. As we are awaiting a decision from the Federal Public Sector Labour Relations and Employment Board on this matter, it would not be appropriate to comment on our position at this time.”

 

https://www.thelawyersdaily.ca/articles/6396/federal-lawyers-union-says-low-pay-contributing-to-crisis-in-hiring-retention-court-delays-and-stayed-prosecutions