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Feds promise legal aid cash

Family law cases face biggest backlog

Nathan VanderKlippe
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Oct 28/02) - The federal justice minister says more money is needed to help ease the legal aid crunch, but how much more government is willing to spend isn't clear.

Martin Cochon was in Yellowknife as part of a cross-country tour to discuss solutions to the problems facing legal aid.

"I understand the pressures they're facing," said Cochon. "It's a priority, so I believe I'm going to be able to have access to more funding."

In the Northwest Territories, legal aid is administered by Legal Services, an arms-length board whose funding is split between the federal and territorial governments. Right now, Ottawa pays 40 per cent of Legal Services' $3,578,000 annual budget.

In addition to heavy demands for service, Legal Services also has a staff problem. It only has three lawyers right now, with two vacancies.

In the last fiscal year, Legal Services funded 1,112 applications for legal aid; 504 of those were criminal requests, not including "presumed eligibility" cases when a person gets unscheduled assistance on a court day.

In this territory, there is no backlog for criminal cases. People with civil cases -- which can include divorces, custody battles and child access rights -- do face a long waiting list.

Reg Tolton, assistant deputy minister of justice, couldn't say exactly how long -- "significantly less than 100 last time I heard."

Lawyers are more vocal about the need.

"There's a screaming need for lawyers to help legally-aided clients with family law needs," said Arthur von Kursell, a lawyer with McLennan Ross who worked with Legal Services from 1998-2000.

"Family law is a very demanding practice," said von Kursell. "Clients typically come in the door with a large volume of priority needs."

Lawyers working for legal aid also complain that the system doesn't provide them enough time to work with clients.

Each case is matched with a Legal Services grid that determines how many hours of preparatory work a lawyer will be paid for. Although higher than in other jurisdictions, hourly rates to legal aid lawyers in the NWT aren't as high as typical fees at legal firms.

"We would certainly like to see more money go into the legal aid system, but we have to be realistic," said Tolton.