The province will review the troubled legal-aid program, which can no longer help many low-income Albertans who are unable to afford lawyers, says Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley.
The review will look at the program's governance, scope of services, financial eligibility, rates paid to lawyers and affordability. The report is expected to be finished by spring.
- Lawyers end project aimed at helping poor gain legal advice
- Legal Aid closing northern Alberta offices, cutting jobs in Calgary
"The challenges faced by legal aid are complex," Ganley said. "We will be guided by what is in the best interest of clients, the administration of justice and all Albertans."
Ganley announced some interim measures that will take effect in December. The minimum income level to qualify for legal aid will be raised by three per cent. The hourly rate paid to lawyers will increase from $84 to $92.40 an hour. The province will also add more family lawyers to act as duty counsel in a number of high-need courts.
Legal Aid is cutting some services it has offered in the past, like briefs, referrals and representation for some civil cases.
The program has only been able to help people who are receiving Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped, leaving many eligible low-income Albertans without access to a lawyer.
Defence lawyers resorted to asking judges to order the province to pay for lawyers, a process known as a Rowbotham application.
In a news release, the Criminal Trial Lawyers Association, the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association and the Red Deer Criminal Defence Lawyers Association said they were pleased the government will review the program, but they still had concerns.
The slightly higher eligibility threshold will result in just a few more people qualifying for assistance, the groups say. Funding will continue to be an issue as lawyers continue to rely on court orders to get help for low-income clients.
"As Rowbotham Orders continue to be made regularly because so many people are refused legal-aid coverage, this will put significant pressure on legal aid, whose budget is already so severely constrained," the release said.
Legal aid is funded by the provincial and federal governments, and the Alberta Law Foundation. But the proportion of funding provided by the province has been an issue.
The province provides more than 80 percent, while the federal government has kept its portion at 2005 levels. In 2015, legal aid received $66 million in government funding: $55.2 million from the province, and $10.8 million from Ottawa.
The previous Progressive Conservative government refused to increase funding for legal aid, and took the position that the federal government should pay more.
The Alberta Law Foundation isn't generating as much money due to low interest rates.
The province added another $5.5 million to legal aid to ensure coverage for people who were receiving Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH). However, the funding shortfall means many low-income people who can't afford lawyers aren't eligible for help.
In summer of 2014, legal aid was forced to close six regional offices and lay off staff.
An increasing number of lawyers were asking judges to order the province to provide legal assistance for low-income clients
Initially, former justice minister Jonathan Denis said funding would be provided on a case-by-case basis. Later, the province relented and agreed to fund all current and former cases subject to these court orders.