Legal Aid Alberta gets more money but challenges remain: chairman

Legal Aid Alberta is getting a funding boost but it’s not addressing the bigger problem facing the province’s court system, according to the chairman of the organization.

LAA received confirmation last week from Alberta Justice and Solicitor General that it will provide additional funding, over and above its 2014-15 budget, for all current and future court orders for state-funded counsel approved by the department in the 2014-15 fiscal year.

“These orders placed Legal Aid Alberta at an even greater financial risk, as the costs associated with them were unbudgeted expenses that we could not have predicted,” said Derek Cranna, chairman of the Legal Aid Alberta’s board and a lawyer with Field Law in Edmonton.

In previous years, LAA averaged two to three orders annually; however, in the current year it has already received more than 40 such orders.

“Following a media release by the Department earlier this week, Legal Aid Alberta sought clarification regarding the proposed funding of these orders as it was not aware of the Department’s position on that point,” Cranna said in a statement last Friday. “The Department provided that clarification and confirmation was received today that all orders will be funded. We’re very pleased to have now had that dialogue with the Department, and to have this financial burden relieved for this fiscal year.”

Cranna says the additional funding “is a good step forward and it helps our organization in a financial sense in the short term and that’s great, but I think in order to make the organization work in the way the board would like to see it work we would certainly need a substantial injection of further funding,” he says.

In a ruling released earlier last week, Alberta’s Assistant Chief Judge Lawrence Anderson ruled three individuals, who had previously been deemed not eligible for legal aid funding because they receive Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped, were incapable of self-representation and ordered legal aid to take on all three cases.

Cranna said Legal Aid Alberta would like to see the funding become part of the annual budget and include all low-income earners who are not currently covered, like those Anderson ruled on Aug. 16.

“We’d like to cover those people without the need for a court application,” says Cranna. “Judge Anderson sees the criminal side of these issues every day and understands the pressures placed on the court and he’s been prepared to make some very strong remarks about that.”

Earlier this year, LAA took the step of more stringently applying its eligibility guidelines.

“We didn’t change the guidelines but took the step to enforce them more quickly because we could see what was going to be hitting us financially and we wanted to be proactive and take a more principled and consistent approach to applicants, so we did that,” says Cranna.

But that means there are now people being denied coverage who may not have been denied in previous years.

Cranna said LAA would also like to eventually raise the tariff of fees paid to legal aid counsel — the private bar lawyers who do the work.

“They’ve been sitting on a static figure now for six years — $84 per hour — we’d like to see an increase to that to give a better sense of the value they bring to organization but also hopefully attract some people to come into the more difficult areas of law like family law,” he says. “We’re not just trying to throw warm bodies at it.”

To date, Cranna says everyone involved in the legal aid crisis in Alberta has been reacting to problems as they arise, but a lack of consistent data poses a problem when it comes to determining exactly what resources should be available for legal aid.

“We don’t have the hard data to do with this jurisdiction that we would prefer to see and I think that’s part and parcel of a larger look at how access to justice is working in our province and whether or not we can make legitimate changes to it,” says Cranna. “I think it would be best for everyone to take a step back and take a hard look at what the province really needs and who pays for it.”

There has also been criticism that the federal government’s tough-on-crime agenda is creating an added burden on the court system.

“If you have mandatory sentencing there is less impetus on litigants to settle things,” says Cranna.

“If you have an accused who formerly might have been able to bargain something with the Crown, take a lighter sentence, or deal with something more creatively they would have done that. Now there’s really no incentive to get into those kinds of discussions and Crowns aren’t in a good position to get into those kinds of discussions.”

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