Legal aid eligibility thresholds increased but lawyers still shunning cases

The Quebec government increased legal aid eligibility thresholds by 6.67 per cent, but that’s not good enough, asserts to the Quebec Bar.

The increases, in effect as of May 31st, matches the percentage by which the minimum wage increased on May 1, 2018. A single person who works a 35-hour week at minimum wage, or earns $21,840 per year, can now have access to the legal aid system. Legal aid services are also free of charge to a family of two adults and two children whose income is less than $35,814.

Quebec Minister of Justice Stéphanie Vallée claims that the increase in eligibility thresholds “will benefit thousands of low-income individuals” but does not provide a detailed appraisal. According to the latest annual report by the Commission des services juridiques, the provincial body that oversees Quebec legal aid, the number of people requesting legal aid in fiscal 2016-2017 remained stable, at 220,259.

The Barreau du Québec would like to see the provincial government review their method of calculating legal aid thresholds. The calculations for eligibility thresholds are based on an annual salary. The Barreau has urged the government to make the calculations on a monthly basis, as is the case in other provinces. The professional corporation points out that this would allow a person who lost his job to become eligible for legal aid at a time when they need it most.

The Barreau, and the legal community, is also hoping that the government finally increases fees for lawyers who take on legal aid cases. The head of Montreal’s defence lawyers association, Daniele Roy, told me that “more resources have to be provided to lawyers who take on these cases under legal aid. Our fees are way, way [lower than] other provinces.”

Negotiations to review the 2013 agreement between the province and the Barreau du Québec over legal aid fees and expenses have been underway since last fall. In fiscal 2016-2017, $47.2 million in legal aid fees and $9.3 million in legal aid expenses were doled out to 2,328 lawyers in private practice, according to the Commission’s latest annual report. That’s a slight increase compared to fiscal 2015-2016: $46.8 million in legal aid fees and $8.6 million in legal aid expenses. On average, lawyers who took on legal aid cases generated $24,237 in legal fees.

In a recent missive to members, Quebec Bar president said the current rates “incite lawyers to forsake legal aid cases because of the derisory fees.” The gap between private and public legal fees is “unacceptable,” and that penalizes low-income citizens and limits their access to justice, he added.

The landmark Jordan decision of July 2016 by the Supreme Court of Canada too has had an impact. The head of the Criminal Lawyers Association noted that the Jordan decision has compelled provinces to implement changes to ensure delays do not exceed 18 months in provincial courts and 30 months in superior courts, but provinces have for the most part failed to inject new funds for lawyers who accept legal aid cases. Judges now expect defence lawyers to submit more detailed written arguments before the start of a trial, but they are not compensated in kind for the extra workload.

Or as Quebec lawyer Félix-Antoine T. Doyon put it recently: “When $330 is handed to a lawyer for a day’s work at trial and he prepares for 30 hours, the problem is that lawyers will not accept this kind of case.”

It’s no wonder then that one in two Quebecers are self-represented litigants.leg

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