When Leslie Stevenson was living in Ontario three years ago, he was able to obtain legal aid for a trial, because he was poor and receiving welfare payments. But now, although he is still on welfare, he has been left stranded by the B.C. legal aid system.
According to new belttightening criteria established by the government of British Columbia, a charge of narcotics possession against Stevenson in this case is not serious enough to warrant defending by the legal aid lawyers because it is not likely to draw a jail sentence. Still, Stevenson, 24, who has a criminal record and fears he may go to jail, has been told by the judge that he needs a lawyer before the case can be tried. “Without a lawyer, I can’t even walk into the courtroom,” he says.
Stevenson is one of the casualties of a nationwide crisis in legal aid. As the recession forces more Canadians onto welfare rolls, the lineups for legal assistance have also lengthened, straining already tight provincial budgets and defying governments’ efforts to reduce public spending. In the late 1960s and early 1970s all 10 provinces enthusiastically launched legal aid programs, with the goal of providing free or lowcost legal representation to anyone unable to afford private counsel. But now funds are beginning to run short in most provinces. The number of people seeking assistance rose by about 30 per cent last year in both criminal and civil law areas, and especially in wrongful dismissal and debt-related cases. Like Stevenson, many seeking legal help for anything from a child custody battle to a farm foreclosure are now unable to get it.
British Columbia, for one, recently surrendered to the financial squeeze by drastically reducing its Legal Services Society staff and toughening client eligibility requirements. As a result, there are “6,000 people in British Columbia who need legal aid and cannot get it,” says Vancouver lawyer Craig Paterson.
Other provinces are considering charging fees to legal aid clients. The prospect of further reductions has precipitated a vocal debate. For one thing, legal aid critics charge that habitual users and clients with trivial problems abuse the system. Last week Chief Justice Gregory Evans of the Supreme Court of Ontario noted that divorce
cases (often uncontested) cost the Ontario Legal Aid Plan $13 million last year. But many legal aid officials and private practitioners say reductions in legal aid funding deny poor people the fundamental right to equal justice.
The nouveau poor— formerly middle-class Canadians now victimized by the recessionare the main reason for the swelling numbers of prospective legal aid clients. “We are seeing people who, until recently, were working as teachers, engineers and bookkeepers,” says g Gretta Grant, an On2 tario Legal Aid Plan y area director based in m London, Ont. “Now, suddenly they cannot afford to pay for legal services.”
The most severe cutbacks in Canadian legal aid services were made last October in British Columbia, which faces an expected $1.4-million legal aid deficit for 1982-83. Twenty of the province’s legal aid staff members were released (another 15 will go in April), a $30 user fee was imposed, and payments made to private lawyers taking legal aid cases were rolled back 12 per cent. In civil cases the society now provides legal representation only in matrimonial disputes in which there is a danger of violence or where child custody is an issue. It will assist in criminal cases, says B.C. Attorney General Allan Williams, only when there is “a probability of imprisonment,” even though the province’s legal aid legislation calls for representation when there is any chance that the accused could be imprisoned.
Last month hundreds of lawyers from the B.C. Law Union and the B.C. branch of the Canadian Bar Association petitioned the government to lift its restrictions on the grounds that legal aid is an essential service. “The cutbacks are an attack on the segment of the bar that works for the poor, the criminal and the disadvantaged,” declares Paterson. But B.C.’s Social Credit government says it is only being fiscally responsible. “Discipline, restraint and efficiency must be accepted by all government services,”
says Williams, who warns that further service cuts may be required to bring legal aid spending into line with his government’s budget expectations.
Looming cutbacks have predictably stirred public opposition. In Montreal last month demonstrators gathered outside the Palais de Justice to protest a proposed user fee for legal aid clients. Quebec’s Commission des Services Juridiques, the province’s legal aid service, subsequently dropped the idea, but the Quebec cabinet announced instead that for the second year in a row it would freeze income eligibility levels (starting at $170 a week for single persons), above which applicants must generally hire their own lawyers or represent themselves.
Only Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba are maintaining past standards of legal aid delivery. Nova Scotia has moved to curtail the number of people receiving legal assistance by reducing the number of staff lawyers who exclusively handle legal aid work, while Newfoundland has terminated its legal aid duty counsel service.
A different form of attrition is being practised in New Brunswick and Ontario. Both provinces allow private lawyers to accept as many legal aid clients as they want but the provinces keep a tight lid on fees paid for legal aid cases. In a major austerity move New Brunswick will reduce legal fees this month for private lawyers in civil cases by as much as 40 per cent. Ontario legal aid fees have been frozen since April, 1979, until a 10per-cent increase was announced last week. And many Ontario practitioners say the payments often represent as little as one-third of what they would make acting for private clients, with the result that quality is sacrificed. “Lawyers aren’t saints,” says Toronto litigation lawyer George Biggar. “There comes a time when you will do less work on one person’s case than on another’s because you’re not getting paid enough.”
The debate over the merits of legal aid cutbacks will sharpen this month as provincial cabinets begin preparing their 1983-84 budgets. Some lawyers say they will fight legal aid restrictions on the grounds that the right to equality before the courts is constitutionally protected. Legal aid supporters even suggest that the cutbacks are economically self-defeating because they will inevitably produce more jail sentences.
But the ideal of justice for all may prove to be too expensive. There are too many repeat offenders and too many lawyers “dragging out trials with their taximeters running,” says Toronto Assistant Crown Attorney Robert Ash. “Given the economic hard times, I don’t think we have much choice.”
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