Lawyers who represent the province’s poorest people say they’re growing increasingly worried that some are being left without legal counsel because they collected federal benefits in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Legal Aid Saskatchewan lawyers say the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) is simply shining a light on an existing problem — that the agency’s financial eligibility guidelines exclude many people who can’t afford a lawyer but don’t qualify for social assistance.
That combination creates situations where people denied Legal Aid services and court-appointed counsel are sometimes left to represent themselves, creating an “uneven playing field” in court, said Julia Quigley.
“I think it’s hugely problematic,” said Quigley, a staff lawyer in Legal Aid’s Prince Albert office and vice president of Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 1949, which represents the government agency’s staff of about 130.
Legal Aid lawyers said they are aware of situations where people who accepted the $2,000-per-month CERB this spring and were subsequently charged with a crime found themselves unable to access legal aid.
In a prepared statement, Legal Aid CEO Craig Goebel said the agency’s guidelines are tied to the Ministry of Social Services’ support levels by legislation, and CERB and EI are higher than those levels for many people.
“We’ve been carefully looking at every application from individuals on CERB, as it is a short-term program,” Goebel said.
Legal Aid does not publish its financial eligibility guidelines. A copy of its service delivery manual obtained by The StarPhoenix states that a single person is fully eligible if they earn less than $985 per month.
That threshold rises for families, up to $2,735 for a family with eight children, and is slightly higher across the board in the north. Minors and people collecting social assistance are automatically eligible for Legal Aid.
CERB is set to expire at the end of the month; it was intended for people who lost their jobs during the pandemic, though there are multiple reports of people mistakenly or fraudulently collecting it.
That is leading to another problem as the province claws back CERB cash from people who collected it and social assistance at the same time , Quigley said, leaving people with even less money to pay for representation.
Hiring a private lawyer for a simple criminal trial can cost several thousand dollars; the price tag grows for more serious charges. A lengthy and complex murder trial can run to tens of thousands of dollars.
Poor people have few options aside from Legal Aid. They can apply for court-appointed counsel — “a fairly involved process,” Quigley said — or to a poverty law clinic such as Community Legal Assistance Services for Saskatoon Inner City Inc. (CLASSIC).
CLASSIC was created in 2006 to help fill the “massive gap between who qualifies for Legal Aid, and the limited practice areas they do, and then who can retain a private lawyer,” executive director Chantelle Johnson said.
“We have one of the most limited Legal Aid systems in Canada.”
Quigley said the solution is what CUPE Local 1949 has been advocating for years: “significantly” higher income eligibility cutoffs and more resources for the $26.1-million-a-year agency, so it can expand the range of services it provides.
Others, including prominent defence lawyer Chris Murphy and the Saskatchewan NDP , have made similar calls in the past. Murphy said “ properly” funding Legal Aid is the “No. 1 way ” to improve the province’s justice system.