Nfld. & Labrador

Legal Aid Commission looking to recruit more private lawyers

The Newfoundland and Labrador Legal Aid Commission has put out a call for help from lawyers in the private practice.

Heavy caseload has legal aid reaching out for help

A spike in applications has legal aid looking for private lawyers to take on cases. (Glenn Payette/CBC)

The Newfoundland and Labrador Legal Aid Commission has put out a call for help to lawyers in private practice.

Recently, legal aid has been swamped with a slew of applications for assistance.

"The nature of the business is that things come in waves. There are times when things get busy," said Nick Summer, the commission's provincial director.

"At the moment, we seem to be experiencing a particularly large wave."

Legal aid director Nick Summers says the cash incentives for private lawyers to take legal aid cases have more than doubled. (Glenn Payette/CBC)

Summers said he's not sure why it's happening, but suspects it has to do with the economy.

"Perhaps it's because people are coming back from other provinces who have lost jobs there. Economic times, obviously, have an impact. Across the province, in the last seven to eight months, we have noticed an increase of around 16 per cent in the demand for our work."

Summers said that has legal aid reaching out to lawyers in the private sector.

Cash incentives improved

The previous rate legal aid would pay private lawyers to handle cases was set in the early 90s.

"So it was way out of date," said Summers. "We were asking lawyers to take cases at $55 an hour — $45 an hour if they had less then 10 years experience. You can't run an office on that hourly rate. So, we weren't getting lawyers prepared to take any cases."

Summers said that has changed following a ruling out of the province's Court of Appeal about two years ago. The new rates are based on a survey of what other provinces were doing.

Now, a lawyer with 10 or more years experience gets $135 an hour. A lawyer with five to 10 years experience gets $125 an hour, and a lawyer with less than five years experience is paid $120 an hour.

Legal aid is looking for private lawyers to take family law as well as criminal cases. (Glenn Payette/CBC)

Summers said they are looking for private lawyers to take on criminal and family law cases. They have not pinned down the exact number of lawyers needed.

"We don't have 50 files that we have to get rid of by next Wednesday or something like that. We have a problem; it's a growing problem right now. One of the solutions is going to be to send some of that work out to the private bar."

We have a problem; it's a growing problem right now.- Nick Summers, legal aid commission

There is a process lawyers will have to complete to get legal aid work. It includes being willing to take the work at the new rates, and not looking for money beyond that.

Summers said the commission asked the province's law society to send out a memo to lawyers to let them know legal aid is looking for help.

The emails went out on Monday. Summers doesn't know just how much response has come in, but it's been good.

"I know the member of my staff — we gave her number as the one to contact — came to see me yesterday and asked me why I hated her. She was snowed under with phone calls."

Surefire money

Summers is not surprised by the reaction.

"Not every lawyer gets $200-300 an hour. And even those that do have to build in a certain amount of uncertainty whether they are going to get paid it. We are guaranteed. If they do the work for us, they know they are going to get paid."

Apart from the financial incentive, Summers said there's a moral reason for taking on legal aid work. 

"There's satisfaction helping those who aren't able to help themselves. Legal aid is there to help people who can't afford a lawyer. If a lawyer wants to see the justice system work, then this is their chance to step forward and help out."

About the Author

Glenn Payette

Videojournalist

A veteran journalist with more than 30 years' experience, Glenn Payette is a videojournalist with CBC News in St. John's.