Spotlight on legal aid benchmarks

  • October 12, 2016

In August, CBA Council passed a resolution endorsing proposed legal aid benchmarks developed by the Access to Justice Committee in cooperation with the Association of Legal Aid Plans of Canada, and “encourage their adoption and promotion with the public and justice system proponents.”

While benchmarks are commonly understood to mark a place in time against which progress can be measured, or to mark a point of excellence to which all future effort will be compared, the six proposed benchmarks are deliberately aspirational, “but grounded in current international research and best practices,” aimed at providing guiding principles to achieve the goal of a national system of public legal assistance.

The benchmarks move past the traditional idea of legal aid as the state paying for a lawyer to appear in court on a specific issue and instead talk about public legal assistance – assistance in a range of areas and often in partnership with other agencies –“consistent with general concepts of access to justice, including achieving just outcomes and promoting legal health, legal empowerment and social inclusion.”

“The national benchmarks … capture the predominant evidence-based ideas about public legal assistance services and define pathways for the future,” the committee says in their complementary report A national framework for meeting legal needs: Proposed national benchmarks for public legal assistance services (Canadian Bar Association, 2016).

Specifically, they:

  • Establish a common aspirational and measurable goal
  • Contribute to informed provision of legal assistance services and policy, and
  • Promote shared learning and collaboration.

“The benchmarks are not performance indicators,” the report stresses. “They go far beyond what most Canadian legal assistance providers currently do and far beyond what we can measure.”

The benchmarks are based on consultations and research carried out by Dr. Melina Buckley and a working group made of past members of the CBA’s Access to Justice Committee and the Association of Legal Aid Plans of Canada.

The next steps for the CBA, according to the report, are to promote the benchmarks to a wider audience; develop indicators for the benchmarks and a measuring process; and to “breathe life” into them. As the report says, “(a)ll public legal assistance service providers can take steps within current resources and capacity toward advancing one or more of the benchmarks and share their experience with other providers.”

Legal aid benchmarks:

1. A National Public Legal Assistance System

Canadian public legal assistance systems are sustainably funded and provide comprehensive, people-centred legal services tailored to local, regional and provincial and territorial circumstances to meet essential legal needs and contribute to the health and well-being of disadvantaged and low-income Canadians.

2. Scope of Services

Public legal assistance services are provided to individuals, families and communities with essential legal needs who are otherwise unable to afford assistance. Essential legal needs are legal problems or situations that put into jeopardy a person or a person’s family’s liberty, personal safety and security, health, equality, employment, housing or ability to meet the basic necessities of life.

3. Service Priorities

Public legal assistance services are provided on a priority basis to individuals, families and communities who are financially disadvantaged or otherwise vulnerable to experiencing unmet essential legal needs.

4. Spectrum of services

Public legal assistance service providers use discrete and systemic legal strategies and work in collaboration with non-legal service providers to offer a broad range of services, from outreach to after care, targeted and tailored to peoples’ legal needs circumstances and capabilities.

5. Quality of Services

Public legal assistance services in all provinces and territories are fully accessible, timely, high quality, culturally appropriate and cost-effective. Such services will lead to evaluated meaningful participation and fair and equitable outcomes, and contribute to the empowerment and resilience of individuals, families and communities.

6. A Supported, Collaborative, Integrated Service Sector

Public legal assistance service providers participate in collaborative service planning across this sector and are mandated and supported to innovate and to fulfil their integral role of ensuring access to justice and an effective justice system, working in partnership with all stakeholders.