Fewer Central Albertans will have access to legal assistance in criminal, civil and family court starting today as part of a Legal Aid Alberta overhaul to cut costs and improve perceived inefficiencies.
Alberta Justice recently accepted recommendations made by Legal Aid Alberta following the organization’s in-depth review of what it was doing to meet the legal needs of low-income Albertans. All will be carried out as one-year pilot projects.
One change being implemented immediately will see Legal Aid reducing financial eligibility by 30 per cent.
Legal Aid Alberta normally accepts about 40,000 clients for full representation every year, meaning a lawyer handles an individual’s case through all proceedings. With the cutback, about 33,900 clients would be served, or about 6,100 fewer clients.
“That is a temporary fix for us because we have to meet our budget,” said Legal Aid Alberta spokeswoman Jennifer Fowler.
Fowler said an individual with a net income under $21,000 would have qualified for legal assistance, but that income ceiling is now below $14,200.
Severe funding cuts from the Alberta Law Foundation due to the economy is forcing Legal Aid Alberta to reduce eligibility requirements, she added.
The financial eligibility change is expected to save $5.6 million a year. Although fewer people would qualify for full legal service, Fowler said other approved recommendations are meant to bring about service improvements.
One includes setting up Legal Services Centres, starting in Edmonton this week, followed by Calgary in June. Red Deer will be the third community to get one, sometime in the fall.
These centres will provide up-front assessments of legal needs so that clients can be referred onto the appropriate legal service.
“The reason why this is going to work is those who aren’t eligible for (full representation) will get that legal advice,” Fowler said. “Whereas in the current model, they wouldn’t get any legal advice.”
The Legal Services Centre will have staff lawyers on site, whereas the regional Legal Aid offices don’t have them.
Currently, individuals apply for Legal Aid through the Red Deer regional office. If accepted, the individual would be referred onto the Central Alberta Law Office to get an appointment with one of its lawyers. In addition to representing Legal Aid Alberta clients, staff lawyers provide a wide range of other legal services.
Fowler said the Legal Aid client normally has to wait for an appointment to see a lawyer with the Central Alberta Law Office, whereas that wouldn’t be necessary with the Legal Services Centre.
“We may very well need to keep the Central Alberta Law Office as a separate law firm because there are not enough lawyers in Red Deer doing legal aid,” Fowler said.
Legal Aid Alberta will also expand criminal duty counsel in four cities, including Red Deer. Those lawyers are typically in court to give free advice to anyone who needs it during their first appearance. This service now handles about 85,000 people annually.
Another approved recommendation will see Legal Aid offering family mediation services, starting in Edmonton and Calgary.
It costs less to put clients through mediation than through court, Fowler said.
Legal Aid and the province plan to review the impact of the changes at the end of the pilot project.