Alberta adds $70M to Legal Aid under new five-year governance deal

EDMONTON — Alberta is putting in another $70 million to legal aid services as part of a new agreement.

Premier Rachel Notley, announcing the new funding Thursday, said it will deliver more and timely help to low-income Albertans in the justice system.

“Whether it’s a parent who is fighting for child support or a survivor of domestic violence fleeing an abusive partner, fairness before the courts should never depend on the size of someone’s bank account,” said Notley.

“Last year more than 60,000 Albertans used Legal Aid. With this new funding we will be able to serve an additional 7,000 people just this year.”

The money will be spread out over four years and is part of a new governance agreement between the province and legal aid that begins next year and ends in 2024.

Almost $15 million will be added to this year’s operating grant for Legal Aid, bringing the total to $104 million.

Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley said the extra money will allow Legal Aid to hire more lawyers and implement organizational changes to reduce duplication and delay.

“This (new plan) enables a client to call in to Legal Aid and tell their story once instead of telling their story multiple times to multiple different people,” said Ganley. “It allows some flexibility in ensuring that we’re not having quite so many changes of (legal) counsel so that we’re not delaying court processes unnecessarily.

“It also ensures that individuals who have a right to access Legal Aid are able to access Legal Aid without having to bring a court application and slow the process down.”

Legal advice and information will also be made available at all first appearance bail hearings, and there will be phone and in-person legal help for family law cases.

Kevin Feth, chair of the Law Society of Alberta’s Legal Aid task force, said the new deal will bring continuity and stability for lawyers on what services can and will be covered by the program.

“In the past we had a lot of uncertainty about that because financial restrictions meant that from month to month Legal Aid was never quite sure what it was going to be able to handle,” said Feth.

“When lawyers (now) come out to volunteer to do pro bono work or they agree to train up to do Legal Aid work, they understand what kind of commitment they can make over the longer term and the rug isn’t being pulled out from under them all the time.”

John Panusa, head of Legal Aid Alberta, said the changes will help as the number of clients continues to grow and the system deals with rising costs and inflation.

Panusa said the system has been dealing with chronic underfunding but the money in the new deal should allay that, based on their forecasting model.

“It will certainly be enough based on those figures that we had worked with our partners to ensure were accurate and reflective of our experience and what we see coming in the next four years,” said Panusa.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

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