A Calgary organization that offers free legal services to people who don’t qualify for legal aid in Alberta is calling on candidates in the provincial election to remove barriers to accessing justice.
“We have political parties talking specifically about crime in our downtown area and on our trains, and there are ideas about increasing police presence – which is not a terrible idea, but it’s only one part of the equation, said Marina Giacomin, CEO of Calgary Legal Guidance (CLG)
CLG offers free legal guidance to no-to-low-income people, including those experiencing family violence, homelessness, or health issues, and cannot afford a lawyer or have access to paid services.
Giacomin is calling provincial candidates to think about access to justice, specifically people experiencing poverty and fleeing domestic violence.
“A lot of people can’t afford lawyers and legal aid is an excellent resource but historically there have been issues with people being able to access it just because legal aid has been chronically underfunded,” Giacomin said.
“Access to justice affects all of us. It’s not just something that people who are in the profession of law or someone who has been charged with something cares about. We are all paying for these kinds of things in various ways,” Giacomin said.
In 2022, Alberta’s defense lawyers voted to end months of job action after the government announced an interim increase to funding for legal aid.
Alberta’s government was able to increase the tariff rate, eligibility guidelines and block billing by 8 percent in October due to increased federal funding. A further 25 percent increase on January 1, 2023 brought the tariff rate up to $125 per hour.
Financial eligibility guidelines increased slightly. For a single person, the qualifying yearly income is now $21,668.
The NDP is pledging to review legal aid eligibility.
“It leaves out the most vulnerable among us so what we will do to start with is to make it so that it matches the poverty line as published by Statistics Canada,” said Alberta NDP candidate for Calgary-Bhullar-McCall, Irfan Sabir.
“We have committed that we will be reviewing legal aid eligibility to make sure that those who need the services most have access to it and it reflects the reality of Albertans,” Sabir said.
The Calgary Legal Guidance says they’ve seen a growing demand for pro bono services since the start of the pandemic. Giacomin said a more cost-effective approach would be to fund more specialized courts like the existing Indigenous court, drug treatment courts and the Edmonton Mental Health Court that opened as a pilot project in 2018.
“It’s not free to send people to jail. It’s also not free to have every single issue in court. It costs us as taxpayers a ton of money and there’s an opportunity here to divert some of those resources into these more specialized court programs or these other programs that really help rehabilitate people and address some of those social issues,” Giacomin said.
UCP leader Danielle Smith has proposed the Compassionate Intervention Act which would give police and family members of drug users the ability to refer adults and youth into involuntary treatment if they pose a risk to themselves and others.
A UCP spokesperson said an increase of $40 million in Budget 2023 will help support the legal aid program and ensure vulnerable Albertans have access to legal help.
The Calgary Legal Guidance Society is a pro bono organization started in 1972 and provides legal support for thousands of Albertans each year.
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