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CBA urges federal candidates to advocate for legal aid, launches social media campaign

Friday, June 14, 2019 @ 9:38 AM | By Amanda Jerome

The Canadian Bar Association (CBA) is mobilizing to put legal aid on the radar of candidates running in the 2019 federal election.

On June 13, the organization launched a social media campaign with the hashtag #LegalAidMatters to rally the profession to the cause. The CBA’s national president, Ray Adlington, along with all 13 CBA branch presidents have also written an open letter to federal party leaders urging them to “commit to access to justice for all Canadians.”

“Equal access to justice is not a reality in Canada now,” the letter states, noting that legal aid, Canada’s “most important access to justice program, is too often inconsistently available, even for essential legal needs.”

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CBA national president Ray Adlington

According to the letter, the CBA presidents believe it is incumbent on political leaders to “ensure that the federal government shows strong leadership on this file.”

“We ask that you show leadership in two ways: by committing to dedicated federal legal aid funding; and by adopting guiding principles for a national, integrated system of public legal assistance to improve access to justice and meet the needs of disadvantaged people across Canada,” the letter notes.

According to a CBA release, 48.4 per cent of Canadians over 18 years old (11.4 million people) will have at least one civil or family justice problem over a three-year period and “everyday legal problems cost the state at least $800 million annually.” (That breaks down to $248 million in additional social assistance payments, $450 million in employment insurance payments and $101 million in additional health care costs).

Despite the apparent need, the CBA noted that legal aid accounts for approximately one per cent of government funding.

Adlington told The Lawyer’s Daily that the CBA surveyed its members approximately one year ago to find out what the organization’s advocacy work should focus on.

“One of the two key priorities that emerged from that survey that our members truly care about is access to justice,” he said, adding that given 2019 is an election year, the CBA decided to highlight the need for stable legal aid funding across Canada.

“[Legal aid] is within the bailiwick of the provinces and territories to establish and fund their own legal aid systems and, obviously, the standards are very different across the country in terms of access and what services are available,” Adlington explained, pointing to the recent cuts to Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) as an example.

“We didn’t time this intentionally,” he added regarding the Ontario cuts. “We’ve been planning this launch date for some time, so this is not a timing of convenience.”

Adlington said the CBA is trying to engage its younger members with the social media campaign as it believes they will be “very effective advocates.”

“We’ve seen information about the younger generation that they are more socially conscious, and this is certainly a social issue that we believe ought to be pursued,” he added, noting that the CBA has also developed a digital tool to assist members in sending letters to their party candidates.

“Our members can put in their personal information, like their postal code, and then you can create a letter that will then be sent to the candidates in the jurisdiction where they happen to reside. So, for me, I reside in the federal riding of Dartmouth-Cole Harbor and this morning I went on and I did my letter and had it sent to the five registered candidates in my riding. It took me three minutes to prepare the letter,” he explained, noting that members can access the tool on the CBA’s website.

Adlington said the CBA is looking to engage its 36,000 members in writing letters to their local politicians to “make them aware that we care about this.”

The CBA’s open letter to party leaders points out the inequality of the legal aid system across Canada.

“A single mother working for minimum wage might get a lawyer for a child custody problem in one province, but in the next province be directed to a website or self-help materials,” it states, adding that for “criminal matters, we know too well about Canada’s excessive incarceration of certain populations, including Indigenous people and people with mental illnesses. For all those accused of crimes, and especially for vulnerable people, legal help at the appropriate time can make the difference between a just and unjust result.”

The letter concludes by saying “[p]eople need to have faith in Canada’s legal system and the fairness of our democracy. The CBA asks you to include reaching equal justice in your election platform. We ask to meet with you to discuss this issue at your earliest convenience.”