Legal Aid Alberta aims to increase access to justice to Albertans by establishing itself as a centre of excellence in the community, reducing inefficiencies in communication and removing barriers to access to justice through its new, three-year strategic plan.
John Panusa, president of Legal Aid Alberta, says one of the driving factors in launching this new direction was to ensure Albertans not only understand the value the organization brings to the public and the legal system but are able to access those services when they need them most.
Not only has the organization been influential in the development of therapeutic courts for mental health or drug treatment, Panusa says, but there are various services that have been made available regardless of financial eligibility such as bail duty counsel, over-the-phone legal advice, youth services and emergency protection orders for people facing domestic violence.
By increasing public awareness of these services and breaking down barriers to access, Legal Aid Alberta can continue to play an active role in the community and in shaping the legal system.
“In this way, we can be seen as an investment and not an expense item,” Panusa says. “And I think that was reflected in our new sustainable funding agreement; it’s really seeing us as an investment to enhance the justice system.”
In 2018, Legal Aid Alberta received an increase in funding from the government amounting to $70 million over four years. Panusa says that, although this money has allowed the organization to innovate, it is important that it maintain independence in order to ensure fair representation.
“We are funded by the government; however, often our clients are averse in interest to the state,” Panusa says. “It's important to us to recognize and celebrate the fact that we are independent, and we want to ensure that there's never any undue influence in that regard.”
The three-year plan also emphasizes the importance of producing and implementing an Indigenous strategy that will respond to both the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action and the unique challenges Indigenous people face in the legal system.
“What [our strategy] is aimed at is ensuring that Indigenous people that need our services are able to access those services and get into our system,” Panusa says.
The strategy is especially relevant for the organization given its unique partnership with the Siksika Nation in southern Alberta. Twenty years prior, Legal Aid Alberta and Siksika Nation forged an agreement in an effort to increase access to justice to an isolated, rural part of the province, Panusa says. Since then, the organization has established a permanent office on the reserve and has been able to provide culturally appropriate legal advice and support to members of the community, Panusa says.
“All the changes we’re doing are really only possible because the stakeholders in the justice system in Alberta are willing to engage,” Panusa says. “But, even more importantly, it's because we have a workforce here that's really dedicated to living our values and helping all Albertans. It's really a team effort.”