The House of Assembly is debating a bill to amend the Legal Aid Act. Right now, if a Legal Aid applicant is charged with murder, manslaughter or infanticide, he or she has the right to demand a private lawyer covered by Legal Aid. But if Bill 34 is passed, that right will be removed.

The government says in extenuating circumstances, the director of the Legal Aid Commission will continue to have the authority to appoint a private practice lawyer.

In 2008, the House passed an amendment that allowed Legal Aid clients, who were charged with murder or manslaughter, to choose a lawyer employed by the Legal Aid Commission or a lawyer in private practice. In years where there is a high number of murder charges, Legal Aid’s costs associated with hiring private practice lawyers increases significantly. The government says if this continues, it could negatively impact services the Legal Aid Commission provides its other clients.

Justice Minister Andrew Parsons argues that the Legal Aid Commission employs highly experienced lawyers with expertise in family and criminal law. During debate in the House, he said applicants demanding private lawyers had created a morale problem.

“I have a tremendous level of respect for the staff of the Legal Aid Commission and the work that they provide to the people of the province,” JParsons said in a news release. “Ensuring that everyone has access to legal services in Newfoundland and Labrador is very important to a strong justice system. These amendments will enhance the delivery of Legal Aid services to Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.”

This amendment is expected to come into force at the end of this sitting of the House of Assembly. The amendment will not affect Legal Aid clients who are already receiving private legal counsel funded by Legal Aid.