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The balance of justice

Starving legal aid affects more than accused criminals

Fact File
Funding for legal aid last fiscal year was $3.3 million.
The Legal Aid deficit is approaching $200,000.
There are currently 75 family files on a waiting list
Legal Aid is not available for tenant or social services complaints and personal injury cases.
It does not deal with property settlements unless a client offers full repayment.
Experienced lawyers (not salaried lawyers hired by legal aid) working for legal aid are paid $109 per hour. Inexperienced lawyers in private practise make $150 to $300 per hour.
Legal Aid lawyers on salary average $70,000 per year without benefits.
Last fiscal year there were 1,500 applications for legal assistance in criminal cases and 840 applications for civil or family cases.

Dawn Ostrem
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Dec 04/00) - Legal services is facing a funding crisis, warns Greg Nearing, executive director of the program in the NWT.

The problem is compounded by the recent drug bust in Yellowknife. Most of the the 63 people arrested in Operation Guiness are expected to apply for legal aid.

"We don't budget for a big thing like that," said Danny Beaulieu of Fort Resolution, chair of the NWT Legal Services Board."With the money we have we will go into a real big deficit."

Beaulieu and Nearing say the overload will affect family law cases which take most of the Legal Aid budget.

There is a backlog of 75 family files at the legal aid office. A lawyer was hired on salary in June to clear the cases, but the number of cases is creeping up again.

"With crime we have an obligation (under the charter) to provide counsel," Nearing said.

"It's easier to slow down funding in the family area but I don't see that as being responsible."

Nearing said the consequences can be gauged through the health of society. Alcoholism and drug abuse, high suicide rates and neglect are serious problems in the NWT.

"It is not good to know we are not able to provide services as quickly as we would like to in family law and in family law a delay is devastating," he said.

Weak link

The five legal services lawyers -- three in Yellowknife and two in Inuvik -- are exceptional, Nearing said, but there just isn't enough money to stay on top of the applications for aid.

Many private lawyers work for legal aid to pick up the slack, but have their own overhead costs to consider, he said.

Legal services already operates on a visible two-tiered system, not because of the quality of legal aid lawyers, but because of the time and money available to counsel in private practise, Nearing said.

"There is just as much of a crisis in the legal community," Nearing said. "The people who are the weakest and least likely to pay are suffering disproportionately more than the wealthy."

Other links in the rule of law system are also suffering.

The RCMP has not had an increase in staff for more than a decade. As a result, police cancelled Yellowknife's 50th Street Project which dealt with troublemakers in the downtown area after the bars closed.

The Crown prosecutor's office is also looking for more resources.


Beaulieu said the only real options are to cut services or find more money.

""We just don't have the funds to provide legal aid to the ones who qualify yet people are entitled to a lawyer," he said.

"We will definitely have to go to the feds to try and find more money and we are planning on speaking to the GNWT minister of justice and discuss this with Jim Antoine to see if there are other options."

Nearing said the department of justice has bailed out legal aid before and the GNWT provided supplementary appropriations. This time he is worried.

"This may be the first time there may not be a way to have the deficit dealt with," he said.

"We will economize however we can. We have become very strict with financial eligibility."

He said even those in dire financial straits may have a hard time qualifying for legal aid.

A separate legal aid lawyer deals with cases before the Justice of the Peace, but that position may be cut.

A meeting of the legal services board to discuss the issues is set for January.