The Power of Perspectives

The Canadian Bar Association

Kim Covert

Legal aid is an integral part of the social safety net

January 30 2017 30 January 2017

It’s time for the federal government to take a leadership role in access to justice, the CBA’s Access to Justice Committee says in a submission to the House of Commons Committee on Justice and Human Rights which is studying legal aid.

“Canada needs federal leadership in creating a properly funded, national legal assistance systems strategy, with services administered by each province and territory, and minimum national standards and comparable services available throughout Canada,” the submission says.

“Better ways of delivering services to more people will be an ongoing challenge, but the foundation for access to justice through support for adequate access to legal assistance services must be an unwavering government commitment to national standards.”

Nearly 50 per cent of Canadians will have a legal problem in any given three-year period but most will not seek legal help to resolve those problems. Legal issues tend to escalate, particularly for those at the low end of the income scale, creating long-term costs for society. Studies from the U.K. and Australia suggest for every $1 spent on legal aid, $6 of public funds are saved elsewhere – to the point where it is not unreasonable to suggest that publicly funded legal services “are a pillar of a just democratic society” and an essential public service along with education, health care and social services.

For the past 21 years however, since the government stopped dedicating funding to civil legal aid in 1995, provincial legal aid providers “feel pressure to put the scarce funding they receive to programs recognized as constitutionally guaranteed (criminal and child protection matters).” Compared to overall government spending, spending on legal aid is relatively flat or declining.

So what is to be done?

According to the Access to Justice Committee, the federal government needs to “assume a leadership role in the justice system that goes beyond legal aid.” It needs to coordinate funding to improve the system as a whole and reduce the stark regional disparities that currently exist; adopt the benchmarks for public legal aid developed by CBA and the Association of Legal Aid Plans of Canada.

And it could maybe start by providing dedicated funding for civil legal aid “at levels that will allow for benchmark compliance.”

The Access to Justice Committee pressed these points before the House of Commons Justice and Human Rights Committee when representative, Doug Ferguson, testified on December 13, 2016.  During the hearings, it was evident that members of the Committee were relying on the CBA’s brief, commenting on the CBA’s concerns about the “patchwork of legal aid services across Canada… inconsistencies with respect to financial eligibility and the types of legal matters that are covered under legal aid,” and “stark regional disparities,” and questioning government officials about the benchmarks.

There are dozens of efforts, at both the provincial and national levels to improve access to justice, and the CBA concluded its submission by inviting the federal government to join those efforts.

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