Alberta's Legal Aid desperate for more funding in face of increased demand

Legal Aid is joining the growing list of organizations and services affected by the economic downturn in Alberta, saying it now needs extra cash from the province.

Non-profit received 37 per cent more requests for service during the first 3 months of 2016

Joshua Lam is the clinic manager and staff lawyer at Calgary Legal Guidance, which has seen a spike in requests for help as Legal Aid struggles. (Allison Dempster/CBC)

Legal Aid can join the growing list of organizations and services affected by the economic downturn in Alberta. 

The non-profit agency that is funded by the province said it won't be able to keep up with demand if it doesn't get a funding boost from the province in the upcoming budget, thanks to 50,000 requests for service during the first three months of 2016 — a 37-per cent increase.

"If the government does not increase our funding for next year at the release of their budget, as an organization we will be insolvent at some point next year," said vice president of client services Deanne Friesen.

Alberta's solicitor general says she will wait for complete government review before committing more money to the organization. 2:22

Economy taking its toll

Friesen said the economy could be one of the reasons for the increased demand. 

"Certainly with the downturn in the economy, that tends to impact families. You know, people will fight over money, child support obligations aren't able to be met any more and those are all things that may land someone in court."

A person qualifies for Legal Aid if they make less than $1,638 per month and less than $19,653 in a year. Both criteria must be met. 

Legal Aid services are not free. Clients are expected to repay the organization for the services, but Friesen said collecting that money has become more difficult during the downturn. 

The organization currently receives $66 million from the province annually.

Provincial budget

Friesen wouldn't say what Legal Aid is hoping to see in this week's budget, but other agencies will be watching with interest.

Joshua Lam is a lawyer with Calgary Legal Guidance, which helps people with low incomes navigate the court system. He said 23,000 people reached out to his organization for help in 2013, and 55,000 contacted it in 2015. 

"Legal Aid is over-worked and under-resourced and so there's a number of clients that normally would be able to get some assistance from Legal Aid, but are now coming to us," he said.

Financial constraints

In recent years, Legal Aid has had to close six regional offices and lay off staff to cope with funding pressures.

"We've done everything we can internally to ensure that we're operating effectively and efficiently, and in fact have been able to actually cut out $5.5 million over the last couple years from our general operating expenses," said Friesen. 

She said this isn't a new situation for the organization, at least from a funding perspective. 

"Certainly people have heard it before from us. So, the problem is that Legal Aid is continuously finding itself in the situation where we don't have sufficient funding to cover the demand."

With files from the CBC's Allison Dempster

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