Access to justice issues hurting the middle class, Alberta justice minister says by Jason van Rassel, August 14, 2015, Calgary Herald
Fixing the province’s legal aid program for low-income Albertans is only part of the larger challenge of ensuring affordable services for a wide range of people who need the courts, Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley said Friday.
“People moving up to a median income probably can’t afford legal services on complex legal matters. Certainly, legal aid is scoped within this problem, but I think it’s a bigger issue,” Ganley said in an interview after addressing the Canadian Bar Association’s annual conference in Calgary.
Funding for Legal Aid Alberta has been a frequent flashpoint between the province and the legal profession in recent years, especially since a precipitous decline in investment income from the arm’s-length Alberta Law Foundation that used to cover a much larger portion of the program’s operating expenses has left it increasingly dependant on government dollars.
A $5.5 million boost to the program by the provincial government last fall restored coverage to recipients of Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH) whose eligibility had been cut due to the looming shortfall, estimated at $15 million in the coming years without additional funding.
Organizations representing defence lawyers in Calgary and Edmonton characterized the increase as a good interim step, but have called on the NDP government, which was elected in May, to raise the program’s current $66 million allocation in the upcoming provincial budget.
With the price of oil slumping at levels not seen since 2009, it’s an open question whether the provincial government will grant that request. But beyond whatever fiscal challenges the government is facing, Ganley said she’s also not convinced more funding is the solution.
“We can continue throwing money at the problem — that’s one solution and I’m not saying that it’s off the table — but it doesn’t seem to be a solution that has worked thus far,” she said.
And while legal aid funding has, at times, dominated the dialogue between the government and the legal profession, Ganley said the difficulties of ensuring access to justice extend to middle-class people and families not eligible for subsidized legal assistance.
“It goes beyond legal aid, this sort of drain of the middle class, where they can’t afford legal services anymore. It’s a significant challenge,” said Ganley.
To that end, the NDP is continuing reforms started by the previous PC government aimed at reducing the complexity of legal proceedings and offering alternatives to court in an effort to make legal representation less costly for litigants and, when it’s appropriate, making it easier to represent themselves.
In 2014, the government raised the limit for civil claims in provincial court — commonly referred to as small-claims court — to $50,000. The government is also consulting judges, the legal profession and social service agencies about better ways to solve family law disputes involving child custody and divorce.
“In some cases, it’s not to the benefit of the two individuals involved, their children or really anyone for that matter, to go before the courts,” Ganley said.
In a keynote address to CBA conference delegates, Beverley McLachlin, chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, said access to legal services remains a pressing issue for courts across the country. McLachlin praised Canadian courts for not emulating “draconian” service cuts imposed in the United Kingdom, but said people are falling through the cracks.
“We all know that unresolved legal problems adversely affect people’s lives and, ultimately, the public purse. Among the hardest hit are the middle class, who earn too much to qualify for legal aid, but frequently not enough to retain a lawyer for a matter of any complexity or length,” she said. [Emphasis added]
“We have wonderful justice for corporations and for the wealthy. But the middle class and the poor may not be able to access our justice system.”
– Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, University of Toronto conference, 2011