Legal aid Band-aid
The waiting list in the North for legal aid is highest in Canada

Dawn Ostrem
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Jun 19/00) - Legal aid lawyers in the North can handle a case yet never see their client.

It's just one of the symptoms of the underfunding of legal aid that is having severe ramifications in the North. The problems were highlighted last week when the president of the Canadian Bar Association attended the annual general meeting of the NWT Bar Association in Yellowknife.

During the last decade more than $160 million has been cut from the legal aid system in Canada. In the North, the GNWT attempts to compensate for a half-million dollar shortfall in federal funding.

That still means cutting costs and screening clients.

"We don't cover some things anymore, we're far more rigorous in financial screening and we watch litigation (for high-cost cases) a lot more closely," said Legal Services executive director Greg Nearing.

In order to qualify for legal aid, a candidate's income, expenses, assets and liabilities are assessed. If there is a monthly surplus they don't qualify.

"They're not allowed a penny," Nearing said.

In an interview with News/North, Eugene Meehan, president of the Canadian Bar Association, said the social ramifications of an underfunded legal aid system go beyond the courts.

"If we see legal aid as a social investment we're going to make a lot of progress," he said. "The first time a family unit is in trouble, if you don't look after that, it becomes a much greater social problem and it costs a lot more. Not funding appropriate legal aid cases affects current employment, future employment income and educational opportunities."

Time with client restricted

Both Meehan and NWT branch president Sarah Kay agree that although the problem of underfunding is not isolated to the North, this jurisdiction has its own set of unique problems. The biggest problem here is the backlog of 124 people waiting to see a legal aid lawyer, the highest level per capita in the country.

Even when someone gets to see a lawyer, the amount of time they have is limited by a quota.

"I can do a large number of cases and never meet my client," Kay explained. "There are many people up here without phones and then there are literacy issues and cultural issues. When you're dealing with those other parameters that take time, 15 hours (for example) may be insufficient."

Meehan said government has to address the problem.

"More money has to come from the federal government," he said. "We are working with the federal government and we'll work with the GNWT and especially with (justice minister) Jim Antoine to get the best possible deal for the people of the NWT."

The current situation is hard to articulate. Northern lawyers have called it a crisis and neither Kay or Meehan are willing to speculate on whether it will get worse before it gets better.

"Hopefully, you won't see a complete breakdown in legal aid in this jurisdiction," Meehan said, adding that 124th person on the waiting list may say it already has.

Both lawyers say they are optimistic the bar will get the attention it needs in order to work on a solution because the importance of legal aid is no longer hiding behind other social programs, but is an integral part of people's overall social welfare.