The vice-president of CUPE Local 1949, which represents Legal Aid Saskatchewan employees, said layoff notices in the Saskatoon office sent shockwaves through staff.

Six administrative employees, which is the equivalent of four and a half full-time positions, are being cut and three vacant lawyer positions are not being filled, according to union vice-president and Legal Aid lawyer Deb Hopkins. She also said some duty counsel work, which includes bail hearings and sentencings, is being contracted out to private lawyers.

“Obviously, we’re all feeling really terrible,” Hopkins said.

Legal Aid Saskatchewan provides family and criminal legal services to low-income people typically at no cost.

The CEO of Legal Aid didn’t provide CTV News an on-camera or phone interview. He said the decision to announce layoffs was based on operational issues so it won’t be discussed in the media.

“Our intention was, and always is, to talk directly to our Union and our staff,” CEO Craig Goebel wrote in an email.

“This is an operational decision to make some necessary changes,” he wrote. “We are doing this to increase flexibility in relation to present and future needs of clients, particularly as it relates to bail and remand.”

Hopkins said she takes issue with the reasoning and pointed to a Statistics Canada report that says Saskatchewan has among the lowest remand rates in Canada. She also said Legal Aid staff is working on various ways to make the remand rate even lower.

“So, this is very shocking to me that we have been the agents of change and we’re being told we’re not flexible.”

Hopkins also said Legal Aid staff is overworked, describing the workload as “punishing,” and said there are four duty counsel lawyers who are projected to work on about 870 cases each per year.

“It’s weighed in our system to one credit for two files but many of these files we work on for months, sometimes years,” she said.

In the email, Goebel also said two offices are merging in Saskatoon and a province-wide Telephone Application Centre in Regina will be setup in the fall to help manage workflow.

Legal Aid work has been farmed for years but the president of the Saskatchewan Trial Lawyers Association says, while private lawyers are there to support Legal Aid in the ebb and flow of demand, it needs 10 more lawyers to keep up.

“The work performed by Legal Aid is fundamental to our society and the quality of our society,” Nicholas Stooshinoff said.

He said it’s a “black mark” on society if vulnerable and marginalized people don’t get the legal resources they require.

One lawyer at Stooshinoff’s firm is taking on the Legal Aid contracts as part of the cuts. Stooshinoff said a private lawyer who would charge several thousand dollars for a bail hearing would receive a lower rate when doing Legal Aid contract work.

“When Legal Aid farms it out you get a bundle of files — four, five, 10, 12 — for the total fee of $800. So it is a significant difference,” he said.

The layoffs are effective in September and Goebel said no other cuts are planned for other Legal Aid offices.