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At news conferences held this week in conjunction with Saskatchewan Legal Aid Week, legal aid workers and supporters stressed the importance of this “unsung” social program to justice in the province.

CUPE, which represents more than 120 legal aid workers in 13 regional offices, also launched a major campaign this week to raise awareness of the program. The $50,000 cost-shared campaign includes billboards, leaflets and newspaper ads.

“Just as people can’t imagine our health care system without medicare, it’s hard to imagine our justice system without legal aid,” says Rod Laporte, a legal aid lawyer in Moose Jaw and CUPE local 1949 president.

Established nearly 30 years ago, Saskatchewan Legal Aid helps people on low-incomes in criminal and family law matters. It is one of the most cost-effective legal aid programs in the country due to its reliance on staff lawyers. On a per capita basis, Saskatchewan spends $11.72, while Ontario and Manitoba, which depend heavily on lawyers in private practice, spend $24.72 and $16.99 respectively.

“We do a tremendous amount of work with families, helping women secure child maintenance payments and deal with many other custody issues,” says Doreen Vancoughnett, a paralegal worker in the northern community of LaRonge. “Legal aid really does provide a vital public service.”

The program handled more than 5,000 family law cases in Saskatchewan last year. It also dealt with more than 80% of the criminal law cases in the province.

Deb Hopkins, a Saskatoon legal aid lawyer, says most of the people who depend on legal aid live in poverty and have to cope with tremendous difficulties in their daily lives. “Our job is to try to help them overcome some of these problems and find the support they need in the community.”

Hopkins says legal aid workers would like to get more involved in “the big picture” problems of their clients – a change that would require more community input at the board level.

CUPE members also would like to see the program expanded to cover more people and services. “Right now, only the poorest of the poor qualify for legal aid and the services are restricted to criminal and family law matters,” Hopkins states.

Although Saskatchewan Legal Aid has not received the attention it deserves, Laporte hopes the union’s public awareness campaign begins to change that situation.