Legal Aid Alberta welcomes funding relief but warns it’s only a stopgap
EDMONTON — Legal Aid Alberta welcomed the news Friday that the province will cover some unexpected costs that have taxed the already overburdened agency.
Alberta Justice and the Solicitor General confirmed it will provide funding over and above Legal Aid’s 2014/15 budget to cover costs when a judge orders the province to pay for a client’s defence lawyer.
Legal Aid used to get one or two such orders a year, but they have had more than 40 so far in 2014 and expect more.
“We recognize that these court orders cause Legal Aid Alberta to incur costs that are beyond its current resources,” Deputy Minister Tim Grant wrote in a letter to Suzanne Polkosnik, president and CEO of Legal Aid Alberta. “The number of these orders this year is such that Legal Aid Alberta requires additional resources.”
Grant said his department would cover all orders for state-funded counsel until March 2015 and revisit the issue during next year’s budget discussions.
Legal Aid spokesperson Jan Archbold said she’s pleased Legal Aid will have some financial relief this fiscal year, but warned the agency’s troubles aren’t over.
“It doeesn’t address the ongoing funding issues that we have.”
Alberta lawyers, legal experts and the NDP have criticized the province for failing to properly fund Legal Aid, which provides legal services for low-income Albertans.
Legal Aid predicts it will have a shortfall of $6 million next year, and $19 million the year after. In recent months, two of the group’s board members have resigned in protest to what they say is chronic underfunding. Alberta criminal lawyers have threatened to withold their services.
Justice Minister Jonathan Denis has long said Ottawa is to blame for not paying its share.
In February, Legal Aid raised its income threshold to deal with the shortfall. Now, an individual must earn less than $1,348 a month and $16,170 a year to qualify for a discounted lawyer through the agency, which also provides advice, referrals, mediation and other services.
That threshold means people on AISH, or Assured Income for the Severly Handicapped, make too much to be eligible for a Legal Aid lawyer.
Some of those who are denied legal aid end up representing themselves, even in serious matters, Polkosnik has said. Increasingly, they have come to Legal Aid to ask for help to apply to the court to appoint a lawyer paid for by the government.
Last week, a judge threatened to stay criminal charges against three accused unless the province paid for their defence.
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