September 22, 2022
The Board of Directors of Legal Aid Alberta (LAA), the CEO and Executive Leadership Team, having met on September 20, 2022, ratified the following statement of principles in response to the current service disruption and recent concerns regarding the Legal Aid Governance Agreement and Legal Aid funding:
Enacted in 2019, the Governance Agreement has contributed to a sustainable and predictable funding model for legal aid services in Alberta.
Prior to the Governance Agreement, funding was provided without an agreement as to the services that the Government of Alberta (GOA) wished to be provided, how much those services would cost and how much demand would likely exist. The Governance Agreement has provided a sustainable framework to allow these questions to be answered openly and transparently.
Legal Aid Alberta relies almost entirely on funding from the Government of Alberta and its statutory grant from the Alberta Law Foundation (ALF). Prior to the Governance Agreement, LAA’s budget could vary dramatically depending on the grant from ALF, which depends on the interest rates paid to lawyer trust accounts and the funding grant from the GOA, which might not be responsive to changes in demand. Since 2019, this has ceased to be an issue for LAA.
Simply put, we have received the funding required to provide the services under the Governance Agreement. Where in 2020, ALF provided us with a special one-time grant, the GOA accordingly reduced its contribution. During the pandemic, when demand plummeted, the Governance Agreement acted to reduce the funding level required to satisfy the needs of the Governance Agreement.
In the same way, if demand were to unexpectedly increase, the Governance Agreement would ensure that the services that are agreed to be provided under the agreement would still be funded.
At its core, the Governance Agreement is designed to ensure sustainable and stable funding. Legal Aid Alberta believes that it served that task well. This is a discrete issue to the question of what the LAA Tariff pays for services and who it should cover.
Under Section 15.3, the Minister is obliged to review the tariff rate paid to lawyers. Legal Aid Alberta believes this review is important and we have communicated that to the Minister. We have asked that he consider an increase to the tariff, that at a base level, reflects the following factors:
a. There has not been an increase to the LAA Tariff since 2015 and any increase should be responsive to increases in inflation in the last seven years.
b. We believe that the range of a tariff increase should, at minimum, be guided by the tariff rate for lawyers in Ontario and British Columbia.
As Legal Aid Alberta continues tariff structure modernization, we also support a broad and open consultation process to allow the public and profession to provide submission on the rate of the tariff and how an enhanced tariff contributes to the administration of justice in Alberta.
Legal Aid Alberta is concerned that the Financial Eligibility Guidelines (FEG) have lagged since 2015 and, in fact, trails many similar jurisdictions across Canada. That said, we are equally concerned that simply increasing the FEG will do little to increase access to legal services in Alberta.
For example, if you’re a single person currently making $20,021 per year, you would be eligible for legal aid services, but if you make $100 more a month, you would be ineligible. It is unreasonable to think that $1,200 per year is the financial difference in one’s ability to hire a lawyer or not.
In our view, the FEG needs to be reviewed and reconstructed in a modern and holistic way. Are there more legal needs that ought to be presumptively eligible for service? Are there communities or classes of individuals that ought to be presumptively eligible for service?
We think that a discussion should be had about whether the FEG is a floor for coverage or rather, whether more people should be eligible in a contributory model, whether they share an increasing amount of the costs of services as their income increases. In such a model more people would be covered, but as their income increases, they would be required to pay more of the costs of their services.
In our view, this is a discussion that better addresses the issue of access to legal services in Alberta and allows a full discussion of the documented fiscal savings that an investment in legal aid returns to the system. Beyond that, such a discussion would reflect the social benefits that accrue from addressing important unmet legal needs that Albertans face daily.
It is our hope that this clarifies our position and provides some assurance that these matters are being dealt with in the interests of vulnerable Albertans, the roster and all stakeholders.
Together, we are committed to working with our justice system partners and participating in a comprehensive review that will increase the tariff rate, improve the FEG, and ultimately enhance access to justice for Albertans in a meaningful way.