Legal aid, specialized courts and modernization among justice sector issues in Alberta election

The province votes May 29

Legal aid, specialized courts and modernization among justice sector issues in Alberta election
Amanda Lindberg and Marina Giacomin

Election season is underway in Alberta, and the province heads to the polls on May 29. Access to justice for low and middle-income Albertans, the expansion of specialized courts, and court-system modernization are among the pressing legal-system issues at play, according to the province’s branch of the Canadian Bar Association and the Calgary Legal Guidance Society.

Both groups are urging the province to prioritize legal aid funding by raising the financial eligibility guidelines so more people can access the service amid a challenging economic environment. CBA Alberta president Amanda Lindberg notes that a person working full-time on minimum wage would currently have too high an income to qualify for legal aid.

Research has shown that one in two Canadians will require legal assistance at some point in their life, says Marina Giacomin, executive director of the Calgary Legal Guidance Society. While it has always been difficult for those living below the poverty line to access legal help, she says, recently, in Alberta, more and more middle-income earners are seeking legal-aid services due to the financial instability caused by inflation. And legal aid has not changed its financial eligibility guidelines in at least a decade.

“It hasn't kept up with the changing rates of poverty and inflation,” says Giacomin. “I know that there is some thought at legal aid around changing their financial eligibility guidelines, and certainly, Albertans are in support of that.”

According to a poll Nanos Research conducted for CBA Alberta in 2020, more than 85 percent of Albertans said investing in the justice system is important or somewhat important. And more than 90 percent said that ensuring members of the public have access to lawyers is important or somewhat important.

CBA Alberta also cites an independent economic analysis that demonstrates that if the province invested in legal aid, it would save more than it spent. The estimation by G.K. Fellows of Fellows Economic Consulting suggested that investing $4-$6 million in legal aid would produce a net savings of $11 million.

“Albertans have told us that the threshold to qualify for support through legal aid is unacceptably low and that they are largely in favour of increasing funding to address this,” says Lindberg, who is a litigator, mediator and registered collaborative law practitioner at Bruyer & Mackay in Edmonton.

The unavailability of pro bono legal help just adds self-reps to the system, says Giacomin. This puts matters in the courtroom that do not need to be there because self-reps lack the information, education, and skills to resolve their issues without a trial. “That costs us a ton of money,” she says.

Lindberg says the justice system has been “chronically underfunded,” but there is also an opportunity to be innovative and look beyond the financial aspect.

According to CBA Alberta’s Agenda for Justice 2023, family-law stakeholders have called for unified family courts with specialized judges, early assessment, and case management for over 50 years. Following the models tried in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Ontario, a unified family court in Alberta would save money, eliminate duplication of resources and public confusion, and enhance access to justice, said the agenda.

“For whatever reason, Alberta keeps starting the conversation, and then the conversation gets dropped,” says Giacomin. “It's time to put Alberta families and kids first and to really restart that conversation of an integrated family court model and move that forward. I think it would make a world of difference in terms of the justice system in this province.”

Whoever is elected later this month can also advance the digitization that the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated in the court system, says Lindberg. “We can do a lot more,” she says.

Alberta’s court reforms included building the capacity to use virtual courtrooms and digitally file court documents. In its “Agenda for Justice,” CBA Alberta recommends the “continued or increased use of such innovations as Online Applications, Desk Applications, the KB Digital Justice Filing Service, and the ongoing flexibility to allow individuals to more simply represent their interests in a streamlined, cost-effective and modern manner.”

“There's an opportunity here for whoever forms the next government to modernize our justice system,” says Giacomin. “We got a taste of that during COVID, where folks could do some things remotely. There's an opportunity now to do more of that.”

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