Legal aid top-up means Alberta no longer 'only covering the destitute': defence lawyer

“There’s still an enormous swath of people that cannot afford a lawyer when they get charged with offences, especially serious offences”

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Albertans making minimum wage will just barely qualify for legal aid under new guidelines unveiled by the provincial government, the head of a defence lawyers’ group says.

Last week, Alberta Justice Minister Mickey Amery announced an increase to the qualifying income threshold for legal aid. As of April 1, those making up to $30,000 a year are eligible for no-cost legal assistance, up from just $24,456 under the previous financial eligibility guidelines.

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“Fairness before the courts shouldn’t depend on the size of a person’s bank account,” Amery said in a news release. “Increasing the financial eligibility guidelines will allow more Albertans to qualify for legal aid and get the help they need when they need it.”

Paul Moreau, president of the Alberta Criminal Trial Lawyers’ Association (CTLA), said the increase is an improvement — to a point.

“It’s good as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough,” said Moreau, an Edmonton criminal defence lawyer. “There’s still an enormous swath of people that cannot afford a lawyer when they get charged with offences, especially serious offences.”

Moreau said by his calculations, some minimum wage workers will now fall within the new eligibility guidelines.

“If you’re working a minimum wage job at 15 bucks an hour, and you work a 40-hour week for 50 weeks a year, that’s 30 grand,” he said. “So the difference now is somebody who’s working a minimum wage job is now going to be eligible (for legal aid). So we’ve gone from only covering the destitute to just inching into the working poor.”

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There are significant exceptions, Moreau added. The financial eligibility ceiling typically covers household, not individual income. And it is based on the previous tax year, meaning people who lose their income as a result of a criminal charge likely do not qualify.

“If you had a great job, you’re working, making 60-70 grand a year, then you lose your job in January and you get charged in February, you’re not going to qualify for legal aid,” he said. “Even though you’ve got an income of zero today.”

The ministry said the $30,000 applies to individual gross annual income and that income amounts for larger households “will also increase proportionally” for families numbering two to six people. Income calculations are “based on current month income and income from the last 12 months.”

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Expanding financial eligibility guidelines was one of the issues behind a job action by defence lawyers in 2022, which saw some lawyers on the Legal Aid Alberta roster withdraw certain services to protest stagnant government funding.

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The lawyers eventually agreed to return to work after the government implemented a 25 per cent increase in the legal aid tariff, which came into effect in early 2023 and increased the amount legal aid lawyers are compensated. The issue of financial eligibility guidelines, however, remained unresolved.

Moreau said Alberta Criminal Trial Lawyers’ Association continued to press the minister on financial eligibility guidelines but received little response.

“He said ‘just wait, it’s coming, it’s coming, it’s coming,’” Moreau said. “I can say, as far as the CTLA was concerned, there was no consultation or discussion.

In an email, ministry press secretary Chinenye Anokwuru said WMC Management Services was hired in 2022 to “complete a cross-jurisdictional review, stakeholder engagement and financial modelling to inform recommendations for appropriate levels for the financial eligibility guidelines.”

A legal aid steering committee was also created to advise the ministry on eligibility guidelines, Anokwuru said. 

Legal Aid Alberta provided services to 35,449 people in 2022-23 and is funded by the federal and provincial governments, as well as the Alberta Law Foundation.

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