Next Alberta government needs to address legal aid, technology in courts: legal clinic directors

By Ian Burns

Law360 Canada (May 17, 2023, 2:05 PM EDT) -- With Albertans set to cast their votes at the end of the month in an election largely dominated by financial and energy issues — and affected by devastating wildfires — the executive directors of two of the province’s pro bono legal clinics are saying that issues affecting the legal system also need to be addressed, particularly in the areas of legal aid and technological change in the courts.

Alberta has a number of clinics set up to assist people who are not otherwise able to afford legal representation, among them the Edmonton Community Legal Centre (ECLC) and Calgary Legal Guidance (CLG). Both clinics offer assistance in a number of legal areas, such as family law, immigration and human rights.

And one area that the executive directors of both organizations say needs to be addressed by the new government is that of funding and eligibility in legal aid — a pernicious (and perennial) issue in most provinces.

Debbie Klein, Edmonton Community Legal Centre

Debbie Klein, Edmonton Community Legal Centre

ECLC executive director Debbie Klein said Alberta’s legal system is “kind of unaffordable” to most people, and noted legal aid funding has not kept up with population increases and changes in the cost of living over the past few years.

“For example, the intention of our family law service was to help those who were the ‘next level up’ from those who were supported by legal aid, which are the most marginalized and lowest-income people,” she said. “But basically, what we are doing now is providing services to people with the lowest income levels because legal aid is not able to provide enough service on family law issues for those individuals.”

That concern was shared by CLG executive director Marina Giacomin, who said that access to justice has been an issue in the province “forever.”

“And even with changes in government, there are promises made by one and then a new one comes in and says we are not going to do that. But it seems like it is not a part of the conversation lately,” she said. “I would love to see increased funding for LAA and some encouragement to change the financial eligibility guidelines — I know they have been looking at that, but it would really helpful for the government to support that change so that it kept up with what we have seen in terms of the working poor and what a livable income is in Alberta.”

And that need for change can be seen in numerous areas of the law, in particularly the family system which has long faced concerns around self-representation. But Giacomin said people representing themselves in court has become a rising issue in civil matters.

“Some people can represent themselves really well, but for a lot of people that is not the right way to go, and it ends up costing all of us because it just ties up the court system,” she said. “Sometime people will be waiting years before they get to trial when really they could have just accessed a lawyer out of court and had some kind of mediation and not had to tie up the court’s time.”

And despite a focus on accessibility and technological change in the court system brought about by the pandemic, Klein said that most cases have reverted to in-person court hearings — something that she finds disappointing.

“[An in-person system] works for people who live in the larger population centres, but it certainly doesn’t work very well for the people who don’t,” she said. “I would like to see a hybrid-type situation where a person who lives far away, or has mobility issues, can still have access to virtual hearings. The system is still costly in terms of representation and filing fees, but that would certainly be one thing which is doable.”

Increased modernization is something that Giacomin said she would also like to see.

Marina Giacomin, Calgary Legal Guidance

Marina Giacomin, Calgary Legal Guidance

“Access has always been an issue for people who are facing really deep poverty — they don’t always have access to transportation or childcare that sort of thing that keeps them from being fully able to participate,” she said. “But when we have options for virtual appearances, when people are able to sign their documents and have them witnessed virtually, that is great.”

Another issue which has captured people’s attention in Alberta of late is that of public safety, driven by a rise of violent attacks, particularly on public transit. And Giacomin said the answer coming from politicians seems to be “let’s just throw a bunch of police officers at the problem.”

“And that is not necessarily the wrong solution, but it is not the whole solution, which is to also look at what are some of the preventative things we can do and what can we do about recidivism rates as well,” she said. “Many people who are getting in trouble on transit and elsewhere a have many concurrent issues happening, such as mental health issues or addictions. And in the absence of more specialized courts, I don’t think that increasing police presence on the transit platforms is going to make much of a difference.”

Alberta goes to the polls May 29.

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