Ontario tops legal aid spending as revenue lags

Legal Aid spending in Canada is up 15 per cent over the last four years to $780 million in 2011, but revenue has only increased by seven per cent, according to new numbers from Statistics Canada.

But since the delivery of legal aid varies across the country, it’s difficult to determine if the provinces are using the money in the best way possible.

Home to 40 per cent of Canada’s population, Ontario spends half of the total national legal aid funding. But the numbers are not necessarily proportional. Ontario is also responsible for spending more money per capita, about $28 per person, compared to the national average of $22.

Looking at the data breakdown, University of Toronto professor Anthony Doob says the statistics “implicitly describe the fact that delivery of legal aid is so different across the country.”

“Some provinces may be delivering more efficient services than others,” he says.

And despite minimizing the scope of legal aid eligibility, spending numbers continue to rise.

This year two per cent of Canadians applied for legal aid. Of those, 66 per cent were approved, a number that has been consistent over the past couple of years. Although there were more civil applications than criminal, almost 90 per cent of criminal applications were approved, compared to only half of civil applications, because provinces consider first and foremost the possibility of the client going to jail.

However, Doob says the number of applicants is not necessarily relevant since many people don’t bother applying for legal aid because of extremely low eligible-income cutoffs.

According to an e-mail from Feroneh Neil of Legal Aid Ontario, “the government of Ontario invests in more legal aid services than other provincial governments.” Specifically, “the total $156 million in direct civil expenditures includes the approximately $70 million we spend to fund 77 legal clinics in Ontario.”

Ontario is one of the few provinces that still has legal clinics. It also invests in a toll-free client service centre and provides a “robust duty counsel program.”

Doob says he’s “unsure whether Ontario is providing more legal services or if they are just more expensive.”

Income cutoffs in Ontario are among the lowest in the country, ranging from $10,800 year for a single person to $26,714 a year for a family of five, leaving the majority of people ineligible.

In Quebec, which is responsible for about 20 per cent of spending, the cutoff for a single person is higher at $13,910 a year. But the cutoff for families is lower — $22,808 for households of two or more children.

British Columbia spends 10 per cent of all legal aid funding in the country, with most of the lawyers who do legal aid work in private practice. In B.C., the eligibility requirements are laid out differently. The cutoff income is $38,760 a year but this applies to one to four people in a household.

In fourth place for spending is Alberta, where again mostly private practioners do the work and use nine per cent of national legal aid funding. The cutoff income for a single person is $16,176 a year.

While spending and government funding continues to rise, contributions to legal aid from the law profession has declined steadily from $7 million to $5 million, according to StatsCan. Of the 41,022 licensed lawyers in Canada, 25 per cent provide services in legal aid. The majority of them in private practice.

Doob points out that “a substantial number of lawyers don’t do things that are covered by legal aid,” but there are many lawyers, especially in family law, who simply find it’s not worth their time to provide legal aid.

Whether or not a national legal aid strategy may help resolve some of these issues is questionable, but Doob says “the figures suggest we might try to learn from each other,” and “The next step from today’s report is to learn how to best deliver services.”

For more detailed breakdowns from Statistics Canada’s legal aid survey, click here.

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