Eligibility threshold for legal aid services raised with minimum wage

A judge's gavel. (File photo)

The legal aid eligibility thresholds were raised to reflect the new minimum wage on Sunday, as required by their annual indexation.

Thus, to have free access to the services of a lawyer, the maximum income of a single person increased from $22,750 to $23,842 per year. And under the contributory component of the plan, a single person earning less than $33,304 can request to be represented for a fee of $100 to $800.

The scales of eligibility for legal aid vary according to the family and financial situation of the litigant.

For the Services juridiques communautaires de Pointe-Saint-Charles et Petite-Bourgogne coordinator, Claude-Catherine Lemoine, this indexing is insufficient.

The member group of the Coalition pour l'accès à l'aide juridique calls, in particular, for a revision of the method of calculating income, on a monthly rather than annual basis, to avoid people “falling through the cracks.”

“A person who has a work accident in February could be eligible for legal aid since he will have had only two months of income in his 2020 year, but if this same accident happens in November, we will have to calculate the 11 months of income for the year and the person may not be eligible,” illustrated Lemoine.

And in the context of the COVID-19 health crisis, the lawyer said that laid-off workers may find themselves penniless when emergency government benefits come to an end, without necessarily having access to the services of a lawyer.

The pandemic, however, risks bringing its share of legal difficulties, she said.

“Whether it is from a physical or psychological point of view, people are going to need help.”

She cited, as an example, loan contracts or credit purchases made before the crisis in a completely different economic context. Consumer law is, however, subject to limited coverage under this legal aid plan, she warned.

“It is often in times of crisis that we realize that the social safety net was of capital importance and there, it is experienced on a large scale. We really think it's important not to forget this sector,” she said.

Legal services should not be limited to information obtained through telephone lines or gleaned from websites, she argued, stressing the importance of consultation, support and representation in court.

During the electoral campaign, the CAQ committed to making a “massive investment” in this program, in particular to improve the fees paid to lawyers.

Earlier this year, the three opposition parties, as well as a group of community organizations, unions and actors from the legal world, reminded Premier Francois Legault of this promise.

The Association du Jeune Barreau du Québec, which represents 9,000 lawyers with less than 10 years of practice, reported that fewer and fewer of their colleagues are accepting legal aid mandates, saying that their remuneration is “no longer up to standard.”

It can be difficult to find lawyers in private practice ready to take very demanding files, in matters of housing or immigration for example, said Lemoine.

 “What we have heard about in the past year is that in matters of justice, there were other priorities than legal aid,” said Lemoine. “But we really think it's important to make sure that the legal aid system is strong and solid, especially with the difficulties present with the pandemic.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 31, 2020.

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