WATCH ABOVE: For the second time in a few months, a legal aid board member has resigned. As Kendra Slugoski explains, she says chronic underfunding made it impossible to fulfill the mandate.
EDMONTON — Two resignations at Legal Aid Alberta in recent months are putting the spotlight on concerns over chronic underfunding. Those at the helm say unless the organization receives more money, justice will be denied to those who can’t afford it.
Over the weekend, Legal Aid Alberta board member Denise Lightning publicly announced her resignation, summing up the reasons behind it in fewer than 140 characters.
Lightning follows in the footsteps of her colleague Dan Ritter, who stepped down in April because of what he believes is “grossly inadequate” funding by the Alberta government.
“If you’re an AISH (Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped) recipient, you’re considered too wealthy to qualify for legal aid. As off-putting as that is, what’s worse is the Alberta government requiring legal aid to cut further,” he said.
Currently, an individual must earn less than $1,348 a month or $16,170 annual to qualify for an appointed lawyer through Legal Aid.
“It’s not very much,” admits Suzanne Polkosnik of Legal Aid Alberta.
She says that as a result of the low threshold, people are being forced into representing themselves in serious matters; and more and more people are asking the court to order counsel be provided for them.
Legal Aid used to get one or two of those situations a year. Since February, though, Polkosnik says there have already been 26 such cases.
“And that is a situation that creates tremendous delay, but also comes directly out of our budget.”
Polkosnik adds that it puts “extra strain” not only on Legal Aid, but also the justice system and — ultimately — the taxpayer.
The province, however, says it has increased funding by 200 per cent since 2005 and points the finger at federal funding, which has remained stagnant.
Legal Aid argues that the graph doesn’t show the fact that it was already in the hole by more than $10 million in 2005-06. It says it has been struggling for years, and per capita funding in the province is more than $7 below the national average.
“We’re cannibalizing ourselves,” said Polkosnik.
“It is a critical situation, there’s no question. Really, in the absence of sustainable, and predictable, adequate funding, we’re running into a situation where legal aid is not going to be available to people who need it.”
The group is projecting a shortfall of more than $6 million next year, and $19 million the year after that.
A representative for Alberta Justice Minister Jonathan Denis forwarded Global News a copy of a letter Denis sent about this subject to his federal counterpart, Minister Peter MacKay. It can be read in its entirety below.
Legal Aid Alberta says that regardless of the federal government’s “inadequate” funding, its “relationship for funding is with the province.”
With files from Kendra Slugoski, Global News