Legal aid shortfall barely budges

Last year Yukon's legal aid lobbied the government for about $400,000 in increased core funding. Yesterday they received $21,000.

Last year Yukon’s legal aid lobbied the government for about $400,000 in increased core funding. Yesterday they received $21,000.

There was barely any increase in the funding for the Yukon Legal Services Society, which runs the territory’s legal aid, in the 2014-2015 budget.

That’s despite the government stepping in with $200,000 in “one-time” funding late last year. At that time, the office was so strapped for cash it had to suspend some services and leave one lawyer position unfilled.

But executive director Nils Clarke still holds out hope his organization will get more money for they coming year.

Back in October, Yukon Justice Minister Mike Nixon ordered the Department of Justice to review legal aid’s budget and come back with a report and recommendations by the end of 2013.

Clarke said he is under the impression that the budget as it sits now was “locked in a while ago” and work is still being done in cabinet regarding a possible increase.

“YLAS has not been told as to whether the cabinet submission has been either accepted or rejected,” he said.

When asked about the funding yesterday, Premier Darrell Pasloski deferred questions to his justice minister.

“There’s been work that’s been going on between the government and them, so I just think that we have to wait. Certainly we’ve looked at what the funding has been there. There has been an assessment that’s been done in terms of what the services are,” he said.

Nixon was not available for comment in time for today’s paper.

The government has given “one-time” funding increases to legal aid multiple times in recent years.

Along with last year’s funds, the government provided legal aid with a one-time funding increase of $180,000 in the 2010/11 year to cover high-cost cases.

It also provided $235,000 in additional, one-time funding to cover legal aid’s high-cost cases for 2011/12.

Clarke said the government needs to acknowledge stark differences in funding across the country.

“At some point, either recognize it or have the intestinal fortitude to say, ‘We don’t believe these are important services,’” he said.

“Actually say this publicly, ‘We don’t believe these are public services and we believe YLAS should provide a very bare-bones (service). Number 13 out of 13 Canadian jurisdictions as far as quantity, quality and breadth of services.’”

Legal aid is paid for with a combination of federal and territorial money.

As of right now, $864,000 of legal aid’s $1.639 million core funding comes from the federal government.

According to Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, the total amount of money spent on legal aid in the Northwest Territories for the 2011/12 year was about $5.3 million. In Nunavut it was $8.3 million. That year in the Yukon legal aid cost $1.9 million.

According to the CCJS report numbers provided by Clarke last year, in 2011/12 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.

According to the same report, in 2011/12 Yukon’s legal aid had 1,390 approved applications and only 51 refusals. That is the highest number of approvals among the three territories.

Not having a direct yes or no answer on the core budget increase is putting his organization in a difficult position when it comes to planning for the next year, Clarke said.

Prior to the government stepping in last year, legal aid suspended services for things like disputes over employment insurance, social assistance benefits, landlord and tenant matters and refugee cases.

Clarke said the empty position has since been filled.

“I think we certainly will wait for the final decision to be made prior to having to make any announcements about any service cuts,” he said.

“We certainly hope that never has to happen.”

NDP justice critic Lois Moorcroft said the government’s decision demonstrates its “failure to plan.”

“It says that the government does not seem to see the provision of legal aid services as a priority.”

Moorcroft said strong legal aid core funding is important because it provides support for vulnerable people in the community.

“(The government) don’t seem to know how to plan based on real life – based on what’s actually happening in the communities and in the organizations that serve the public,” she said.

Clarke said the government needs to stand by whatever decision it makes.

“If their decision is for there to be a very bare bones, cut rate, not very good legal aid plan, then they should go to their electorate and go to their constituents and say, ‘That’s what we believe.’”

Contact Ashley Joannou at

ashleyj@yukon-news.com

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