Dream of affordable justice fades
TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Tue Aug 09 2011. By Carol Goar, Editorial Board
There were stifled gasps, then awkward silence.
Finally Jon Asher, executive director of Colorado Legal Services, said what was on the lips of his fellow Americans. “I never thought our guidelines were generous until I heard that.”
Sue McCaffrey, vice-president and legal general counsel of Legal Aid Ontario, had just finished providing an overview of the state of legal aid in Canada to visiting members of the American Bar Association. She saved her punchline till the end. “One of the things that makes me crazy is how poor you have to be to get legal aid in Ontario.” An individual has to have an income below $10,800 a year to qualify. For a family of four, it’s $24,067.
Even in the U.S., where skimpy social benefits are the norm, the threshold isn’t that low. For the individual, the cut-off is $13,306. For a family of four, it’s $48,000.
Legal aid workers took advantage of last week’s gathering to compare the services they offer to those struggling to eke out an existence. It wasn’t a new conversation; the American Bar Association has held its annual conference three times in Toronto since 1988. But this year’s version was grimly different.
American lawyers used to look enviously at their Canadian counterparts who worked within a well-developed network of government-subsidized legal services. Canadian lawyers wished they had a robust pro bono (voluntary) system like the one in the United States.
Now they’re in a race for the bottom. Government cutbacks have forced legal aid providers to restrict their services to all but the abjectly poor. The pool of lawyers willing to donate their time and skills to non-paying clients has shrunk. Law school graduates, who once began their career in a legal aid clinic, can no longer afford to do that because of their onerous student debts. Mid-career lawyers, who once considered pro bono work a professional responsibility, now treat it as an option. According to Steve Scudder, staff counsel for the American Bar Association committee on pro bono and public service law, it is “grey-haired” lawyers who shoulder the burden.
There are ways — online services, telephone advice, group counselling, partnerships with universities — to stretch scarce resources. Lawyers on both sides of the border are scrambling to implement them before the cracks in the system turn into crevasses. They shared tips and traded ideas in the 75-minute session. But they couldn’t take the next step: cross-border programs.
The problem is that the legal aid systems of the two countries are incompatible. Both programs sprang from the same impulse, but they evolved differently. The U.S. took a national approach. Each year, Washington distributes grants to non-profit organizations in every state. In theory, every citizen is covered. In fact, it depends whether a region has an agency capable of providing the service. Canada’s model is decentralized. Each province or territory runs its own legal aid system. The result is similar: regional gaps and inequities.
There is a second worrying similarity. The lion’s share of the money — 75 per cent in Ontario — is earmarked for criminal cases. That means there is little to no help available to deal with family breakups, child custody wrangles, eviction orders, mortgage foreclosures and the aftermath of natural disasters. Every lawyer on the panel, regardless of nationality, picked this out as the biggest deficiency in legal aid.
For most of the 5,000 lawyers at the conference, the legal aid session was not a big draw. They stuck to the high-profile speeches, gala dinners and panels featuring legal luminaries. But there were enough participants for a stimulating dialogue about how to serve marginalized people.
It will take more than a small core of dedicated lawyers to keep the dream of affordable justice alive. But it was heartening to watch the leaders of this minority in action, challenging their privileged profession to examine its priorities.
< http://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorialopinion/article/1037220–goar-dream-of-affordable-justice-fades >