A new $70-million plan aims to reverse “decades of underfunding” in for Legal Aid Alberta, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and Minister of Justice Kathleen Ganley said in a press conference Friday.
“Most lawyers are concerned about stability in the program — so, what services are going to be covered tomorrow? So when someone comes in and sees them, are they able to provide reliable advice about the kinds of services that will be covered by legal aid? In the past we had a lot of uncertainty about that, because financial restrictions meant from month to month, Legal Aid was never quite sure what it was going to be able to handle. Just that level of certainty helps lawyers serve clients,” Feth said.
While some serious criminal matters, for instance, are consistently covered, lawyers have struggled to predict coverage of discretionary matters such as divorce, Feth tells Legal Feeds. He said the agreement goes beyond just adding more money to the system. Changes and reviews of financial eligibility guidelines could mean thousands more Albertans stay eligible for Legal Aid year-to-year, and the agreement will provide more rationale on hourly rates and hour caps for lawyers, he says.
It also clarifies the role of the law society, particularly its role in protecting legal aid file confidentiality from government access requests, Feth says.
The additional funding, which will be distributed over four years in equal installments on April 1 and October 1, is aimed cutting backlogs and delays in the legal aid system, which serves about 60,000 people a year in the province, the province said in a statement. This year, Legal Aid Alberta will see $14.8 million on top of the $89 million already provided by the province, Notley said, which should allow the system to serve an extra 7,000 people.
Changes in the agreement include indexing financial eligibility guidelines to inflation, Ganley said, and reducing the number of times clients have to call in or change counsel. When asked where the money is going, she said there will be some additional lawyers and extra certificates, she said.
Legal Aid Alberta is “redesigning the way it does business” over the next year, president and CEO John Panusa said at the press conference. He noted the plan is not based on the model used in British Columbia, which is also undergoing a legal aid review. Rather, he said, the amount is based on forecasts that Legal Aid believes will be accurate as costs of services have risen.
Legal Aid Alberta also has the option, under the agreement, to transfer up to $1 million each year to an innovation fund as long as it meets reserve requirements.
The new agreement maintains Legal Aid Alberta’s independence but notes that it will be held “accountable” to “maximize value for dollars spent and make the most efficient use of the Courts’ time.” As part of the new agreement, the Ministry of Justice and the Law Society of Alberta will undertake “an independent assessment of its performance and governance practices through an external management consultant,” the agreement said.
The agreement assigns other specific roles for the Ministry of Justice and Law Society of Alberta. For example, the Ministry of Justice and benchers of the law society participate in the nominating committee for Legal Aid’s board.
The agreement mandates at least one meeting between Legal Aid Alberta and the Ministry of Justice. It gives the Ministry of Justice the power to develop “binding” guidelines on Legal Aid Client financial contributions and to establish a “performance measurement framework.” Legal Aid must also warn the minister in advance if it plans to make “any public facing action or communication that might reasonably be expected to result in the Minister having to respond publicly.” The Ministry also requires Legal Aid Alberta to submit monthly reports and unaudited financial statements.
The Law Society of Alberta also has binding power to regulate how Legal Aid Alberta protects the confidentiality of client information as well as ethical matters.
“Legal aid helps people in some of the most trying times of their lives,” Notley said. “For a long time, support for legal aid in Alberta lagged way behind the rest of the country. We were at the back of the pack. Today that changes.”
Feth said the agreement, which would mark a 72 per cent funding increase since 2015, is a “breakthrough” that stakeholders have pursued for years, securing predictable and sustainable funding for the legal aid system. He called it the most dramatic improvement to Alberta's legal plan in 40 years.
“It’s not often that you bring a bunch of lawyers together and they all have smiles on their faces,” Feth said at the conference.