Legal aid funding ‘yet another Band Aid’

Yukon Legal Aid has suspended some of the services it offers to those who can't afford to otherwise hire a lawyer. 

Yukon Legal Aid has suspended some of the services it offers to those who can’t afford to otherwise hire a lawyer.

When one of the small group’s lawyers left at the end of September, executive director Nils Clarke says he didn’t feel comfortable filling the vacancy until the Yukon government stepped up with more cash to fund his office.

As a result, legal aid’s poverty law assistance – which includes representation in disputes over employment insurance, social assistance benefits, landlord and tenant matters and refugee cases – has not been accepting new clients since the beginning of the month.

On Tuesday afternoon, the government announced it will be providing legal aid with an additional $200,000 in one-time funding.

Clarke says that will allow him to go to his board of directors and recommend that the vacant position be filled.

A new lawyer will likely not be in place until the new year, meaning there may still be a gap in services. Situations will be looked at on a case-by-case basis, he said.

The long-time lawyer said he was appreciative of the announcement but called the one-time funding “yet another Band-Aid” for the larger problem in the territory – an underfunded legal aid system.

“This does not address the issue of appropriate core funding. This addresses the issues of us, for this year, being able to keep the lights on,” he said.

In an interview yesterday, Justice Minister Mike Nixon said he was not aware legal aid had suspended some services.

Aside from the money, Nixon has ordered a budgetary review of legal aid. Officials are to report back to him before the end of the year with recommendations regarding funding.

An increase in core funding for legal aid is something Clarke has been advocating for years.

This is the third year the government has stepped in with a one-time increase to make ends meet.

Legal aid was provided with an extra $180,000 in the 2010-11 year to cover high-cost cases before the courts. A year later the government gave another $235,000 in one-time funding to cover more cases.

“There’s a bit of a pattern developing here, so let’s get to the core of it. Let’s look into the details. I’ll have the department work with the society and from there we’ll see what information there is,” Nixon said.

The current way of budgeting makes it difficult to run services, Clarke said, and is a “constant stress that we face.”

Without the $200,000 influx of cash, the legal aid core budget for 2013-2014 is listed at approximately $1.6 million.

That is significantly less than the budget of legal aid in the two other northern territories.

According to the most recent numbers from the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics (CCJS) report, the total amount of money spent on legal aid in the Northwest Territories for the 2011/2012 year was about $5.3 million. In Nunavut it was $8.3 million. That year in the Yukon legal aid cost $1.9 million.

Legal aid across Canada is funded through a combination of federal money and cash from the respective provincial and territorial governments.

According to the most recent Yukon budget, $864,000 of legal aid’s $1.618 million core funding comes from the federal government. That works out to about 53 per cent of funding from federal dollars, leaving about 47 per cent from the territory.

With the extra $200,000, the territory’s contribution jumps to about 52 per cent per cent.

According to the CCJS report numbers provided by Clarke, in 2011-2012 the Yukon territorial government’s contribution was 45 per cent.

In the N.W.T. the territorial government paid 81 per cent of the bills that year. In Nunavut that number is 78 per cent.

There is no more core money coming from Ottawa, Clarke said. Legal aid across the country is coming to the end of year two of a five-year funding freeze, he said.

“It all falls to the territory right now. And the territory has been able to, with all due respect, abdicate its responsibility for the last 13 years.”

When Clarke first spoke to the News on Friday, before the announcement was made, he said he would like to see the territorial government increase its core contribution to legal aid from about $700,000 a year to $1.1 million.

He called on the government to then link that guaranteed money to a 2.75 per cent “escalator” used by other departments for increases every year.

This extra $400,000 is not about being greedy, he says. It’s about fairness.

“If they don’t start to recognize the imbalance or the lack of responsibility the territorial government has taken for their portion of the funding, then at some point hard decisions have to be made with respect to the funding of legal aid,” Clarke said. He called that “completely unnecessary, given the fact that the current justice system in the Yukon is extremely well-funded.”

The 2013-2014 territorial budget lists the total budget for the Department of Justice as approximately $65 million.

The equivalent of 7.5 lawyers work for legal aid. Clarke says he is the only executive director in the country who also takes on cases of his own.

The office generally has between 475 and 525 files open at any given time.

A lawyer dealing with only criminal matters will usually have between 60 and 80 open files, while a purely civil lawyer will have around 40 cases and someone with a mixed practice will have from 50 to 60, he said.

Clarke didn’t have specific numbers for how many people were seen by the poverty law lawyer, but he said the services were used steadily.

According to the CCJS statistics, in 2011/2012 Yukon’s legal aid had 1,390 approved applications and only 51 refusals. That is the highest among the three territories.

His program is being “starved” in the face of an “an objectively fat justice system” on the other side, he said. That includes multiple government lawyers, a fully funded Public Prosecution Service office and other layers of help within the justice system, funded by both the territorial and federal governments.

“There has to be some fairness or the teeter totter is sitting on one side and there’s no prospect of it even creaking up,” he said.

Contact Ashley Joannou at

ashleyj@yukon-news.com

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