TORONTO – The threshold to qualify for legal aid in Ontario will rise for the first time in 18 years, the government announced in its budget, though to what level it did not say.
A single person in Ontario making more than $10,800 a year – gross income – currently won’t qualify for full legal aid representation. That amount is roughly half of the poverty line.
The Liberal government’s budget, tabled Thursday, revealed that raising the criteria would allow an additional one million low-income Ontarians to qualify for legal aid “when fully implemented.” It did not specify a timeline for full implementation.
Ontario’s legal aid eligibility criteria have not changed since 1996 and every year that the rate remained stagnant more people have been excluded, says Legal Aid Ontario’s policy director on financial eligibility.
There are now approximately one million fewer Ontarians eligible for full legal aid than there were in 1996, according to a Legal Aid Ontario report.
It estimates a similar number, about 1.2 million people, are below the poverty line but are not poor enough to qualify for full legal aid.
Nye Thomas, Legal Aid Ontario’s director general of policy and strategic research, said when he asked the government for specifics he was told they will come in the printed budget papers.
However, he said the province’s commitment is in line with what Legal Aid Ontario had proposed – that is to bring eligibility up to the poverty line over a number of years.
“It’s great news,” Thomas said. “It addresses a long-standing issue for access to justice in Ontario. It’s going to help thousands of low-income families so it’s very, very good news.”
Some provinces – notably British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec – have already raised their eligibilities in the intervening years as the criteria lost ground relative to the cost of living, Thomas said.
B.C.’s eligibility for a single person is a net income of $17,760, in Alberta it’s $16,176 and in Quebec it’s roughly the same as Alberta but as gross income.
Like most provinces, Ontario has different levels of criteria, by which people can qualify for other legal aid services, such as duty counsel assistance and legal advice, but not if they make more than $18,000 a year as a single person.
The threshold rises by family size, up to $43,000 for a family of five to qualify for legal advice or duty counsel assistance.
Legal Aid Ontario can’t set its own eligibility criteria, as it’s locked into regulations, so it had been asking the government for an increase for several years.
The province’s auditor general found in 2011 that Ontario spends more per capita on legal aid than any other province, but helps the fewest number of low-income residents with dedicated legal representation.
Ontario may help fewer people, but its legal aid body provides a much bigger range of services than most other provinces, said Melina Buckley, a legal aid expert.
The Canadian Bar Association is trying to help lawyers develop structures to provide legal services at reduced cost, or “low-bono” or billing some people fixed fees instead of hourly rates, she said.
Buckley, the former chairwoman of the bar association’s access to justice committee, said one way to improve legal aid would be with a sliding scale designed for people who could afford to pay some percentage but not all of their legal fees.
“We think a big part of the solution has to be getting more public awareness of how problematic it is,” she said.
“People tend to associate legal aid just with the criminal side because that’s what they hear about the most…But the reality is that just because of the fact that all of our lives are so regulated by law now almost everyone will have a legal problem of some type at some point in their life.”
Noel Semple, who is on the board of directors of the national self-represented litigants project at the University of Windsor’s law school, said the mounting wave of people who represent themselves in court points to restrictive eligibility criteria.
It is often seen in family court, where people are dealing with matters that can have enormous impacts on their financial security and relationship with their children, he said.
“If you’re in a family court anywhere in Canada today the majority of people there are self-represented,” Semple said. It’s a strain on both the justice system and the people themselves, he said.
There’s a myth in the legal profession that people who represent themselves do so because they don’t think they need lawyers and they can do it all themselves, Semple said.
“There’s a minority who are of that view, but generally these people do want legal services, but they usually just can’t afford them,” he said.
“These often aren’t destitute people. This is a broad, middle-class phenomenon. We’re talking about people who are not completely devoid of ability to pay; they just can’t pay $300 an hour and…come up with a $10,000 retainer.”
© The Canadian Press, 2014