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Legal Aid faces cash crunch

The province's legal aid system was spared cuts in last week's provincial budget, but the program still faces a major financial hurdle.

The province's legal aid system was spared cuts in last week's provincial budget, but the program still faces a major financial hurdle.

Legal Aid Alberta's funding was left intact at $54 million for 2010/11, however the society running the program is still dealing with an impending cash crunch because of lower revenue from other income sources.

Interest revenue from legal trust accounts also supports Legal Aid and, with interest rates so low, that is delivering an ever-dwindling amount of money.

In the 2008/2009 fiscal year, the society received $14.8 million from the interest revenue, but during the last fiscal year that dropped to $5.9 million. This year the society expects to receive just $800,000.

Deborah Hatch, president of the Association of Criminal Trial Lawyers and an Edmonton defence lawyer, said given the financial strain, she would have liked to see the province increase legal aid funding.

"Those who are poor or working poor should have the same access to the justice system and a proper defence as everybody else."

Jennifer Fowler, a spokesperson for Legal Aid Alberta, said the society saved when interest rates were higher and managed to create reserve accounts. The group has been relying on those accounts, which are now dwindling.

"That still leaves us with budget difficulties for next year."

A single person who has a net income of less than $21,000 per year currently qualifies for Legal Aid support. That number rises depending on family size to $46,000 for family of six or more.

New report

As part of a plan to address both the short- and long-term financial troubles, the government last fall commissioned a study on Legal Aid.

Released in December, the report makes a number of recommendations to improve the program and control costs, including rolling back financial eligibility guidelines between 30 to 50 per cent.

That would mean an income cut-off between $10,500 to $14,000 for a single person instead of the $21,000.

Hatch said the government should be looking at higher, not lower, funding for the program.

"The Alberta government funds Legal Aid at among the lowest on a per capita basis so the funding that the government gives is much lower than what other provincial governments give."

When people don't get financial help they represent themselves and cost the system more, she said.

"It is much more sensible to give someone coverage for a few hours of a lawyer's time than it is to have them running a trial by themselves or pleading guilty."

Hatch said other provinces have seen boycotts when lawyers protest working for lower Legal Aid rates, but her concern is more about access for the poor than low pay.

"You haven't heard us saying that we are looking for more funding for ourselves because that is not what this is about right now."

Carla Kolke, a spokesperson for Alberta Justice, said the province and Legal Aid are still looking through that report to try and determine what, if any, of its recommendations can be implemented.

"We are still talking about all of the options that are available. [Changing income thresholds] is just one of the recommendations. There are a bunch of other ones and we are going to look at things like cost and access and affordability."

Kolke said although the province hopes to have an idea on the recommendations soon, there is no set timeline for coming out with a report.

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