In the name of justice, federal and provincial governments must improve funding to legal aid, according to Saskatchewan legal aid workers, members of CUPE Local 1949.
“Only ‘the poorest of the poor’ qualify for legal aid services,” says legal aid lawyer and CUPE Local 1949 President Deb Hopkins, and the program is restricted to criminal cases (involving the risk of jail) and family law matters. “That means there are huge legal needs that are not being met such as wrongful evictions, the denial of social assistance and disability benefits, matrimonial property, immigration matters – the list goes on.”
Even with this limited mandate, legal aid is not properly funded, says Hopkins. “The courts are continuing to expand into specialty courts such as mental health and domestic violence without our input or involvement. We see expanding budgets for prosecutors and police, but nothing for legal aid.”
CUPE Local 1949, which represents about 120 Saskatchewan legal aid workers in 14 offices, launched a television ad campaign in December, cost-shared with CUPE National, to urge the federal and provincial governments to improve funding.
The Canadian Bar Association also is pressing the federal government to increase legal aid funding and expand the program. “Decades of neglect have left Canada’s legal aid system in crisis,” says the association, which represents 35,000 lawyers across the country. “Provinces are cutting legal aid services, narrowing the types of cases they cover, and raising the eligibility criteria, all of which make it harder to qualify for legal aid services,” says the past president of the CBA, Susan McGrath.
Last year, the association launched a legal challenge that focuses on poor people’s constitutional right to civil legal aid and access to justice. Although the BC Supreme Court dismissed the association’s case in September 2006, the CBA appealed that decision.
Provincial and territorial justice ministers also have identified legal aid funding as one of “the key issues facing Canada’s justice system.” At their October 2006 meeting, they unanimously endorsed a resolution calling for increased long-term federal funding for criminal legal aid and new funding for civil legal aid.
Hopkins hopes the growing pressure on governments produces positive results. “We have heard a lot of talk about the importance of legal aid to our justice system, but what we need is a commitment of additional funds on the budget line. That’s the bottom line for legal aid workers,” she says.