A recent announcement by Legal Aid Alberta has become a source of contention in the legal and political community. In September, a new policy was introduced in which clients of Legal Aid would need to secure deposits between $25 to $150 before receiving access to services. The new measures would include discontinuing access to lawyers if clients fail to pay. Justice Minister, Kathleen Ganley, put the changes on hold shortly after they were announced, declaring there must be a review of the financial implications of the policy.
Last month, David Peace, the assistant deputy minister in charge of justice services, told a legislature committee that the fees would only be collected from clients that could afford to pay. The new policy is an effort to stretch inadequate funding without harming the most economically disadvantaged. Legal Aid representative, Dan Laville, claims the payments are being taken from clients with a little money to ultimately subsidize the very poorest. To do this, the organization would examine every case to ensure the client can reasonably afford to pay before charging the fee. Philip Bryden, the deputy justice minister, asserts that Legal Aid Alberta has been collecting fees from clients for years, recovering approximately $4 million last year.
According to Legal Aid’s website, it is a misconception that all Legal Aid services are free. Clients will have to pay a small fee to help cover the costs of the services. Clients may be asked to provide a bail assignment, a pre-payment, or a security agreement such as a car or house, before a lawyer is assigned. Refusal to comply may lead to an end in services.
The policies have been criticized heavily by Albertan lawyers. Kelly Dawson, the past-president of Edmonton’s Criminal Trial Lawyers Association claims that Legal Aid doesn’t understand how the clients in need, specifically those incarcerated, cannot find the money for pre-payment before receiving a lawyer. “We’re talking about people who can’t pay $10, never mind $150. These are vulnerable people” Dan Chivers, the current president of Criminal Trial Lawyers’ Association in Edmonton, points to the issue of targeting clients living on social assistance for payment. While they may be able to afford the payments, it is likely coming at a deeper cost or sacrifice to their bills or family.
In light of the recent economic downturn, there is increasing demand for Legal Aid in Alberta. However, government funding has failed to meet the need. Although the NDP government has increased funding by more than 25 percent, the organization is still attempting to recover from years of chronic underfunding and continues to face major financial shortfalls.
This blog post was written by a CCLA-PBSC RightsWatch student. Views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCLA or PBSC.