Legal aid in Canada: Same conclusions, different report

  • December 07, 2017

Federal legal aid funding has not kept pace with costs. There is a patchwork of legal aid assistance levels across the country. Federal money should be earmarked for civil legal aid. Money spent on legal aid saves money elsewhere in the social assistance system. Technological advances should be leveraged to improve access to legal aid services. National data collection should be improved.

Many of the 10 recommendations from a report on legal aid by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights probably sound like déjà vu all over again.

The report’s findings and recommendations will be familiar to anyone who’s read the CBA’s own Reaching Equal Justice report, along with its proposed national benchmarks for legal assistance, which come to many of the same conclusions – including that immediate action is needed.

“Throughout the study, witnesses informed the Committee that legal aid is no longer simply about providing full legal representation services to those who qualify,” the House committee says. “Given the cost of such services and the number of people who do not qualify for free representation yet also cannot afford legal services, legal aid plans and governments have had to think creatively about how to address the legal needs of the population and have expanded their programs into other forms of legal assistance, such as public legal education initiatives.”

The report quotes Doug Ferguson (now chair of the CBA’s Access to Justice Subcommittee), who appeared before the Parliamentary Committee on behalf of the CBA, as stating that there is evidence that every dollar spent on legal aid saves more than six times that number on other social services. The report quotes another witness as saying, “The research that’s been done on the cost of underfunding legal aid goes both from within the court system all the way out to missed work hours, to housing and social assistance costs, to meeting the needs of people who are now unemployed. It sounds maybe far-fetched, but in fact there is significant economic research that shows that these costs are very real.”

More funding is one answer to the current shortfall, but there are also policy and procedural changes that can be leveraged to improve access to justice, the Parliamentary Committee says.

“The federal government can make concrete changes that will make a difference, such as taking civil legal aid funding out of the Canada Social Transfer, improving data collection, undertaking gender-based-analysis-plus, and improving reporting mechanisms. Implementation of the recommendations in this report can go a long way to increase accountability and transparency and promote better-informed public debate about legal aid,” the House of Commons report concludes.

“The House committee’s report is just the latest in a series of reports calling for immediate action on legal aid,” says CBA President Kerry Simmons. “It’s time for government to act on these recommendations.”