Legal aid lawyers worry lack of new dollars could put system into “crisis mode”

Alberta defence lawyers are worried a lack of new dollars as a result of slumping oil prices could put the Legal Aid system back into crisis mode.

CALGARY — Alberta defence lawyers are worried a lack of new dollars as a result of slumping oil prices could put the Legal Aid system back into crisis mode.

The provincial government announced last fall it would increase funding for Legal Aid by $5.5 million and make it easier for low-income earners to qualify.

That came after Legal Aid closed six regional offices and laid off staff in Calgary, Whitecourt and Lethbridge last summer.

Lawyers threatened job action at the time to try to pressure the government to provide an additional $8 million a year.

Ian Savage, president of the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association in Calgary, says he received indications in December that the Alberta government was going to increase funding for Legal Aid by $11 million on an annual basis, but now he’s not so sure.

An Alberta government official says it’s too soon to predict what will come out of the budget.

Savage says since he got word of the funding increase, the price of oil has slipped “even further. So we don’t have word yet as to whether or not they’re going to be able to keep that commitment.”

Jessica Jacobs-Mino, the press secretary to Justice Minister Jonathan Denis, said the budget process is still underway and it is too soon to speculate on funding levels for any programs.

The government has already raised the monthly income threshold to qualify for Legal Aid by $240 a month, which means all recipients of Alberta’s Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH) will be eligible.

“The funding our government provided made this possible by enabling a change in eligibility requirements to include more Albertans in need, and we will continue to work with Legal Aid Alberta to ensure all Albertans have access to justice,” said Jacobs-Mino.

Savage allowed things have improved a bit since the change was announced.

“It did help to a limited extent. It raised the eligibility bar from below AISH levels to above AISH levels but didn’t substantially help the working poor who still don’t qualify,” he said.

“I’d say in the overall scheme of things it improved marginally but if that extra $11 million does not come through on the base budget for 2015 then we will be back into crisis mode.”

Ottawa used to split the cost of the program 50-50, but now only chips in about 16 per cent. Since 2003, there has been no new federal funding to the program.

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