N.S. legal aid needs annual business plans: auditor

With another big deficit looming in Nova Scotia, the province’s auditor general has called for increased accountability from all government agencies, including the province’s Legal Aid Commission.

Mike Taylor says N.S.’s legal aid system is already so stretched it may need more resources just to produce the reports being suggested.Nova Scotia is forecasting a shortfall of $221 million this year after a disastrous $679-million deficit in 2014. The fiscal mess has prompted recommendations within the annual auditor general’s report to squeeze efficiencies from every part of the ledger.

The recommendations broadly demand accountability reports from all government agencies, going as far as to suggest if agencies won’t comply voluntarily, an expansion of the Finance Act to mandate such reports may be warranted.

With respect to the Nova Scotia Legal Aid Commission, the auditor general is recommending the creation of annual business plans, with quantified goals and deadlines. Outcomes from the plan would then be measured against a separate accountability report.

“The Department of Justice should require that the Nova Scotia Legal Aid Commission prepare an annual business plan,” the auditor general’s report states. “The business plan should include goals for the upcoming year and targets to achieve these goals. The Department should require the Commission’s annual report reflect progress toward achieving these goals.”

While legal aid is not statutorily required to provide an official business plan, it has in the past issued what it calls a “strategic business plan” that provides a general outlook without hard targets or deadlines. The auditor general says that’s not adequate:

“There are statements [in the strategic business plan] associated with each area of focus, but only one statement has a stated target. . . . The report also includes testimonials regarding the high quality of services delivered during the year. . . . If such methods are used in the future to gather this information, the full statistics of number of respondents and range of satisfied to dissatisfied clients should be noted.”

Mike Taylor, a litigator at Pressé Masson in Bedford, N.S., and past president of the Nova Scotia Criminal Lawyers Association (and a former legal aid lawyer himself), says it’s a shame that legal aid was one of the agencies targeted in the auditor general’s reports. The recommendations, he says, may strike some legal aid workers as “insulting.”

“I would expect that, once all of the answers are provided, they’re going to see that there is no fat to trim,” says Taylor. “Legal Aid has done amazing work with the money that’s been provided over the years, and they’ve cut wherever they could.”

Indeed, Taylor says the province’s legal aid system is stretched so thin already, it may need additional resources just to produce the accountability reports being suggested.

“I know that when we’re talking about cutting expenses and trying to save money, it may be counterintuitive to say that we need more money to produce reports so we can save money,” he says. “But I expect that the burden of creating a business plan will be something that requires a significant amount of work. So hopefully additional resources will be provided to allow them to do that.”

As for the subtle reference to an expansion of the Finance Act to mandate business plans and accountability reports, Taylor calls it “a nice little threat. . . . It tells me that it’s probably going to come, one way or another. Either do it, or we’ll legislate.”

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