Alberta Justice officials say an up-front fee for legal-aid clients has safeguards to ensure the poor get access to a lawyer and has been misunderstood.
David Peace told a legislature committee Wednesday that Legal Aid Alberta announced last month it would collect the fee of between $25 and $150, "only from clients that could afford to repay, which is not the totality of their client base."
"There were some misperceptions that somehow that would prevent access to legal aid. That wasn't true, but it concerned our minister," said Peace, assistant deputy minister in charge of justice services.
Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley put the fee on hold shortly after it was announced. Peace said the department and Legal Aid Alberta are considering what options are available.
He said Legal Aid Alberta has said the fee is an effort to make scarce budget dollars go further without causing undue hardship.
Managers are to examine every case on its merits to make sure a client can reasonably pay.
"Nobody that was unable to pay was being forced to pay before they could access legal-aid services."
Philip Bryden, deputy justice minister, added that Legal Aid Alberta has been recovering fees for years. The province issued more than 38,000 certificates for legal aid last year and recovered almost $4-million.
"What was different about this particular move was working on client recoveries at an earlier stage in the process," said Bryden.
Legal Aid Alberta is funded by the province but acts at arm's length to avoid any conflict of interest.
Three weeks ago, Legal Aid Alberta announced clients would pay some money up front before being assigned a lawyer.
It added it would pursue more vigorous measures — including cutting off access to a lawyer — for those in arrears.
That prompted concerns that the poor would be cut off and, less than a day after the leaked policy change, Ganley asked that the plan be put on hold pending a review of its financial implications.
Bryden, answering questions from United Conservative justice critic Angela Pitt, said the government keeps in regular contact with Legal Aid Alberta to ensure that funding considerations align with broader justice goals, including access to legal counsel.
"We didn't direct Legal Aid Alberta to do pre-payment. Legal Aid Alberta made that decision themselves," said Bryden.
Pitt said she is going to push to get legal-aid officials in front of the committee at a later date.
The budget for Legal Aid Alberta this year is $81.4-million, up $13-million from last year.
Ganley's office said in an email that discussions continue on the fee's implications.