No deal on legal-aid funding at federal-provincial justice ministers meeting

Federal, provincial and territorial justice ministers were unable to reach a deal in meetings this week on increased funding from Ottawa for legal aid.

BANFF — Federal, provincial and territorial justice ministers were unable to reach a deal in meetings this week on increased funding from Ottawa for legal aid.

The issue was at the top of the agenda at a two-day meeting in Banff, Alta., that wrapped up Friday.

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, leaving it to provinces to make up the difference.

“Legal aid remains a key concern in Alberta as well as other jurisdictions. We took this opportunity to explore again how legal aid, a joint federal-provincial program, can be funded appropriately through cost-sharing with our federal counterpart,” said Alberta Justice Minister Jonathan Denis, who shared the podium with federal Justice Minister Peter MacKay.

“Although I’m disappointed we could not reach a funding arrangement with the federal government at this meeting, we appreciate the chance to outline our concerns on behalf of all of our constituents.”

MacKay didn’t reveal what the key stumbling block was in increasing federal funding, but did say federal transfer payments to the province had increased substantially since the Conservative government took office.

“This is an ongoing issue and discussion with respect to the amount and the support and the distribution of federal funding for legal aid,” said MacKay, who called the discussions constructive and “very frank.”

“I can assure you there have been no doors closed but we’re very encouraged by innovations, by efficiencies that have been identified, these are discussions that are very important and will continue.”

Denis told reporters afterward that the federal government has fallen well short of what would even be called “adequate” support when it comes to legal aid funding.

“We are contributing roughly $48 million for legal aid in Alberta. That has more than doubled since 2005. The federal government’s contribution has remained flat at $10 million,” said Denis.

“We also asked the federal government move up to 25 per cent of the actual cost of legal aid.

“There is universal agreement that the federal government needs to be an adequate partner in legal aid and access to justice. We’re not seeing that right now,” he added.

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