Legal aid community welcomes increase after 13 years of stagnant funding

After more than a dozen years of stagnant funding, Ottawa plans to give the provinces more money for legal aid programs to help improve access to the criminal justice system.

OTTAWA — After more than a dozen years of stagnant funding, Ottawa plans to give the provinces more money for legal aid programs to help improve access to the criminal justice system.

“All Canadians — no matter their means — should have the right to a fair trial and access to a modern, efficient justice system,” Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould said in a statement issued Wednesday.

The Liberal government committed $88 million over five years in the federal budget, beginning with $9 million this fiscal year.

The Justice Department has now committed to maintaining the level of additional funding at $30 million a year to further boost legal aid services for people who cannot afford to pay for defence lawyers.

That level of additional funding will not be reached until 2021 — two years after the next election — but provincial governments, criminal defence lawyers and advocates welcomed the renewed federal involvement in the file as an important first step to a better system.

“It’s a step in the right direction and I would like to keep moving in that direction,” said Karen Hudson, executive director of the Nova Scotia Legal Aid Commission.

“I see it also as a validation of action and not just talk that legal aid is essential,” said Hudson, who is also chair of the Association of Legal Aid Plans of Canada but insisted Wednesday she was speaking personally, rather than on its behalf.

Since 2003, the federal contribution to provincially run criminal legal aid programs has remained around $112 million per year, which has become a shrinking fraction of the nearly $800 million in total government investment for all kinds of legal aid, including family law.

“For years, the provinces and territories, through their justice ministers, have not stopped demanding for a return to a more equitable sharing of legal aid costs,” Quebec Justice Minister Stephanie Vallee said in a statement emailed by spokeswoman Emilie Simard.

“We are therefore pleased the appeal was heard,” said Vallee.

After so many years, the provinces already have plans for the funding.

Legal Aid Ontario says the funding will go towards expanding its work for the criminal justice system, particularly for clients who are indigenous, ethnic minorities or experiencing mental health issues.

The Northwest Territories notes that given its geographical and cultural context, legal aid provides the bulk of criminal law services to its population. And Quebec already raised the eligibility thresholds for legal aid at the beginning of this year, so that people earning minimum wage could also receive assistance.

Donald Piragoff, the senior assistant deputy minister for policy at Justice Canada, said the sudden boost in funding was mostly a matter of political circumstances.

“Change of government, change of government priorities,” Piragoff said.

The department wanted to give the provinces enough to encourage innovation and efficiency, he added.

“If we are going to pour money into a system, we should ensure the system works well, is efficient and Canadians get the best value for the tax dollar that they put into the system.”

The challenges facing cash-strapped legal aid programs were thrust into the spotlight recently when Ontario Superior Court Justice Ian Nordheimer suspended criminal proceedings against Tyrell Moodie, a 23-year-old man charged with a number of drug-related offences, until the government steps in to pay for a lawyer.

With a part-time job earning him about $16,000 last year, Moodie’s income was too high for Legal Aid Ontario’s $12,000 annual income threshold for a single person, which the judge noted was less than half what Statistics Canada considered the low-income cut-off for someone in similar circumstances in 2014.

Scott Pearl, the Toronto-based lawyer representing Moodie in that case, said he thinks improving access to the justice system in Canada will ultimately take both money and the public will to view access to justice as a matter of rights.

“It’s just like if you’re sick and you go to the hospital, you shouldn’t have to go bankrupt to pay your medical bills,” Pearl said.

“Whether you are guilty or innocent, you have the right to a lawyer if you are charged with a crime.”

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