Legal Aid in Canada

  • July 14, 2015

Federal funding of legal aid services: Key facts

The amount of federal government funding to the provinces and territories to provide legal aid services to people of limited financial means has not changed in 10 years. Currently the federal government provides:

  • $111.9 million to the provinces for legal aid coverage for criminal matters including proceedings under the Youth Criminal Justice Act
  • $11.5 million for immigration and refugee legal aid to the six provinces that provide these services: Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, Newfoundland & Labrador, Ontario, and Quebec
  • $1.65 million for the management of court-ordered counsel in federal prosecution cases, and
  • funds legal assistance in Public Security and Anti-terrorism cases.
  • Federal funding for civil legal aid services is provided to the provinces through the Canada Social Transfer, leaving it to the provinces to decide what to do with the money. There is a wide diversity of coverage in civil law matters across Canada with some provinces, for example, assisting with family law cases while others only offering legal aid when the Crown is taking action to remove a child from his/her home.
  • The Access to Justice Services Agreements with the Territories consolidate federal funding to the territories for criminal and civil legal aid services, Aboriginal courtwork services, and public legal education information.

The CBA's on-going work on the legal aid file

The CBA has been advocating for legal aid services for over 50 years. The long and frustrating campaign has included taking a test case to court, working with politicians, commissioning research, and raising awareness within the profession and the public about the importance of legal aid services in the Canadian justice system. Unfortunately, government funding for criminal legal aid services has been frozen for 10 years, civil legal aid services are almost non-existent in some provinces, and, from all reports, access to justice in Canada is declining.

In 2012, the CBA decided to increase its commitment to improving access to justice in Canada and increased resources dedicated to that goal. The CBA Reaching Equal Justice Initiative is working on a number of different initiatives.

The crisis in legal aid hurts some Canadians more than others

The crisis in legal aid services

The crisis in legal aid has four facets: underfunding, discrepancies in coverage among jurisdictions, fragmentation in coverage within a legal aid program, and disproportionate impact.


Across the country, needy individuals with serious legal problems are turned away from legal aid and forced to represent themselves in complex legal proceedings. Some people no longer apply for legal aid feeling sure that their request will be denied.

Disparities in Coverage

Canadians do not enjoy equal protection under the law as there are significant differences in what legal aid services will be provided in each province.


A legal aid client may only qualify for legal assistance for one part of the legal problem. Partial legal aid coverage is incoherent, unsatisfactory to the person in need of legal services, and inefficient. When a legal problem is not resolved, research shows that more complex problems follow.

Disproportionate Impact

Canada’s low-income population is made up of a disproportionate number of women, people with disabilities, recent immigrants, members of racialized communities and Aboriginal peoples. These are the people who need legal aid and are not able to receive legal aid services.

The costs of inadequate legal aid services

When people cannot use the legal system to protect their rights or defend their interests, there are obvious costs to the individuals. There are significant costs to society as a whole, too.

Costs to society include the costs of:

  • slower court process and more staff time when unrepresented people try to defend themselves or protect their rights
  • social assistance when a person loses a job as a result of having a criminal record
  • on-going foster care for wards of the state
  • protection services for children at risk
  • shelters for women and children who cannot get legal protection from an abusive spouse/parent
  • social assistance for a parent and children who cannot establish and enforce support obligations
  • homelessness
  • incarceration
  • the marginalization of people who cannot participate fully in society.

The inadequate funding of legal aid services is costly and not a cost-saving.

Steps in the right direction: ways to solve the legal aid crisis

More money for legal aid services across Canada is desperately needed. There is also a need to continue to support better, more cost-efficient, and effective ways to deliver legal aid services that are:

  • client-centred
  • more flexible
  • coordinated with other support services.

A more client-centred approach

The starting point for legal aid reform must be a commitment to a client-centred approach. Too often, legal aid clients have had to fit into a system designed to meet justice system needs rather than their needs, leaving many of their legal problems unresolved and putting them at risk of further difficulties with the justice system.

A more flexible delivery of legal aid services

Not all legal problems have to be solved through advocacy and court representation by lawyers. Focusing on client needs is likely to lead to the development of a broader range of services including early opportunities for dispute resolution, assisted self-representation, and a broader range of appropriately trained, regulated, and supervised professionals providing service.

A coordination of legal aid with other support services

Legal problems do not arise in a vacuum. When people need legal assistance they may be facing a variety of challenges such as eviction, job loss, family difficulties, and health concerns. Legal services need to be  coordinated with other support services in the community so that the person can get back on track.