UCP Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer said Thursday the department — which provides government with legal advice, helps draft legislation and handles court cases against the province — is in the process of downsizing.
While the full extent of the cuts remains to be seen, Schweitzer said about 90 positions would be eliminated. Some of that work would be outsourced to outside law firms.
According to an internal memo obtained by Postmedia, employees are expected to receive layoff notices in January.
The cut is one of several justice system spending reductions outlined in last month’s provincial budget. Over the next four years, Alberta’s Legal Services budget is slated to drop 33 per cent, to $38 million from $56 million, as part of the UCP’s plan to balance the budget by 2022-23.
“As we plan for the future, we are going to be downsizing our Legal Services division to make sure we hit our budget targets,” Schweitzer said.
“It’s about making sure we do the right thing, make sure we save taxpayers money and deliver the services Albertans are looking for.”
Opposition NDP MLA Rakhi Pancholi, however, said cutting in-house lawyers is the wrong move.
She said Legal Services lawyers handle everything from child protection cases to employment standards law to occupational health and safety matters.
“If they want to wait until they’re … sued and send it out to outside legal firms, that’s going to cost taxpayers more,” Pancholi said of the government.
An internal discussion paper prepared by the department estimated ministries could end up spending tens of millions more on outside counsel for comparable legal work.
The paper, obtained by Postmedia, says Alberta’s in-house lawyers cost about one-third what it would cost to hire legal counsel from outside firms. Cutting the department “could translate to a number of client ministries potentially being in the red, or off-budget by upwards of several million dollars,” it says.
The paper estimates the department has saved “tens or hundreds of millions of dollars” by helping Alberta avoid costly legal battles. It adds that such “preventative” law work “is not readily or easily exported to outside private law firms.”
It likened the role of in-house lawyers to that of a ship’s navigation system.
“If one were to disable the navigational system of a shipping vessel, the ship would still be able to sail, but it may well hit the rocks.”
The paper suggested other options for cutting the department’s budget, including allowing lawyers to work a four-day week and moving to an alternative funding model.
Schweitzer said it is common for other governments to outsource legal work. “We’ll assess those on a case-by-case basis, making sure we get the best return on taxpayer dollars for Albertans.”
He added that the downsized lawyers are being encouraged to apply for vacant Crown prosecutor jobs.