TORONTO - More low-income Ontarians who have run afoul of the justice system could find it hard to get representation as criminal lawyers who would normally defend them are poised to expand their boycott of the province's legal aid system, The Canadian Press has learned.

More than 1,000 defence lawyers are taking part in the boycott which began in June, when members of the Criminal Lawyers' Association started to refuse to defend all homicide cases as well as gangs and guns indictments to protest what they are paid under the legal aid system.

The Canadian Press has obtained a memo that indicates lawyers taking part in the protest action intend to expand their boycott to other cases unless the provincial government agrees by Jan. 24 to an agreement.

The lawyers want the government to pay them more money for cases they handle and/or agree to a binding review mechanism for compensation.

"Criminal lawyers are really seeking increased funding for the program and a regular independent review mechanism," said Frank Addario, past president of the association, said in an interview Sunday.

Currently, senior defence lawyers who handle homicide and guns and gangs cases under legal aid are paid about $96 per hour compared to $250-$400 per hour that they would bill for similar cases in private practice.

That compares to outside prosecutors -- those specially brought in from the private bar by the government to prosecute cases against police or judges in cases where regular Crown prosecutors can't be used -- who earn a starting rate of $192 per hour.

The criminal lawyers group says the fee disparity isn't fair.

"We're in a tough negotiation with the government. The problems that exist in the legal aid plan have existed for two decades and the government has got criminal law legal services on the cheap through donated services of defence counsel," said Addario, who is involved in the negotiations.

"We are trying to change that," he said.

"There is a willingness but no appetite to pull the trigger on an escalation of the boycott," said Addario.

There was anger and frustration as board members of the association from across the province met in Toronto over the weekend to discuss how next to proceed in their funding dispute with the province.

According to the memo, they were unanimous that unless the province provides a meaningful solution, the job action must be ramped up.

Addario wouldn't confirm the deadline that was cited in the memo. Lawyers have been ready to escalate their protest since the fall, but held off after he asked for more time to get a concrete proposal from the government, he said.

"That proposal has to fix the longstanding problems or the membership won't go for it and the boycott will be escalated," he said.

Failure to get a deal would result in a "really unhappy development in the criminal justice system," he added.

More than 100 people in Ontario who have needed a lawyer paid at legal aid rates have been unable to get one because of the job action.

There is an agreement between the lawyers group and the Ministry of the Attorney General that they won't discuss specific proposals that have been raised in the talks, said Addario.

"The Ministry of the Attorney General, Legal Aid Ontario and the Criminal Lawyers' Association continue to be engaged in regular discussions towards the resolution of the boycott," ministry spokeswoman Erin Moroz said Sunday, but she too would not go into details about the discussions.

The province recently injected $150 million over the next four years into the legal aid system, despite Ontario's $24.7 billion deficit.