Make legal aid an election issue

Tim Wilbur argues that lawyers have an obligation to bring the issue front and centre

While Canadian Lawyer doesn’t endorse political parties or candidates, we do feel it is important to analyze political issues from the perspective of the legal profession.

One of the issues that should be front and centre in this election, but until now unfortunately is not, is legal aid. Major cuts in Ontario have galvanized the legal community, and the Trudeau government stepped into the fray most recently by promising a one-time contribution to legal aid in Ontario, British Columbia and Manitoba.

While a cynical observer may view the prime minister’s announcement as a political stunt, it did give the issue the national attention it deserves.

In fact, the Canadian Bar Association has also been pushing to bring this issue into federal election debates. As the CBA points out, cost-benefit research suggests that $1 spent on legal aid saves about $6 on other social services, everyday legal problems cost the state at least $800 million a year in increased demands on other areas of social spending and self-represented litigants put additional burdens on an already-strained judicial system.

One of the biggest problems with legal aid, though, is that it makes bad politics. Health care and education are issues that affect every Canadian, and the value of these social services is not difficult to explain. Legal services, on the other hand, are not an ongoing need for many Canadians.

Part of the solution to that problem is better public relations, which means seeing issues from the perspective of voters instead of the legal profession. For example, legal aid is not synonymous with the availability of a lawyer. Many “non-lawyers” need to be part of the solution, and the value of better legal aid needs to be measured by outcomes, not inputs.

What most lawyers can agree on, though, is that it should be in no political party’s interest to ignore the problem. So, we call on you, our readers, to make this an issue in the election. Make our national leaders, whoever they are, understand that access to legal services is a key right for all Canadians and that ignoring its importance means ignoring a key issue for voters of all stripes.

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