Study of the Legal Services Provided to Penitentiary Inmates by Legal Aid Plans and Clinics in Canada

1.  Introduction

The Department of Justice Canada (DOJ), in co-operation with the provinces and territories, is developing a new legal aid and access to justice policy framework. The Department has been conducting a number of studies to support the policy renewal process. The research program included two studies of the legal needs of prisoners in federal penitentiaries. Prairie Research Associates Inc. (PRA) and SPS Research and Evaluation (SPS) were retained to conduct the first study, which is based on the perceptions of lawyers and other legal professionals serving inmates, !FLAGin addition to a review of legal aid and other relevant documents[2] .

1.1 Objectives of the research

This study is expected to provide information on what legal aid services, information, and supports are available to incarcerated offenders at the present time, and to identify any barriers faced by incarcerated offenders in obtaining adequate service. The study will also assess whether additional services are required, and what resources would be required to meet such needs. The specific objectives of the research are as follows:

  • To describe current levels of legal aid services and related forms of legal information and support provided to prisoners in federal penitentiaries and on conditional release.
  • To document the difficulties that prisoners may experience in accessing legal advice and support, and any unmet needs.
  • To examine possible approaches for addressing these difficulties and needs, as well as the financial and other resources that would be required to do so.

1.2 Methodology

The methodology for this component of the research consisted of a review of relevant literature and documents, and interviews with legal aid lawyers and other professionals involved in the provision of legal services to federal inmates.

1.2.1 Literature and document review

The purpose of the literature review was to !FLAGsituate federal inmates within the correctional system and provide a brief overview of federal inmates' legal aid needs and the legal aid coverage that currently exists in each jurisdiction, based on the available literature. A list of sources consulted appears in Appendix A. The review of legal aid documents and other relevant literature was also informed by discussions with representatives of the Legal Aid Plans in each jurisdiction included in the study[3] .

Statistics addressing legal aid coverage for federal prison inmates could not be obtained from any jurisdiction. While some jurisdictions indicated that they thought they would be able to draw information from their databases, it was not possible to do so. No jurisdiction has a code in its database that would enable it to definitely identify prison inmates receiving legal aid services[4] [5] . Given that it is not possible for Legal Aid Plans to provide service statistics for federal inmates, it is also not possible to provide the actual or estimated costs of service to those inmates.

1.2.2 Key informant interviews

Prior to starting the key informant interview process, PRA and SPS contacted legal aid personnel in the eight jurisdictions involved in the study and interviewed a senior legal aid manager in each jurisdiction in order to obtain data to inform the development of the interview instrument. In consultation with DOJ Research and Statistics Division, PRA and SPS finalized the interview guide. The interview guide is attached as Appendix B.

During the key informant interview process, we consulted a total of 25 lawyers and other professionals with experience in providing legal services to incarcerated federal offenders. They included legal aid staff lawyers (10), private bar lawyers (8), paralegals (3), one provincial court judge, one staff member of a non-profit legal clinic, the former Chair of a provincial parole board, and a Board member of a non-profit legal rights organization. Respondents were sent the interview guide to allow them to prepare in advance of the actual interview. Most interviews were conducted by telephone; three respondents submitted written answers to the questions.

The interviews were intended in part to supplement previously obtained information on the structure, policies and procedures, delivery methods, and decision-making approaches to providing legal aid services to federal inmates. More importantly, the interviews gathered information on federal inmates' met and unmet legal aid needs, the obstacles to meeting those needs, and potential strategies for meeting the needs in the future.

Obtaining co-operation from potential interviewees proved to be a challenge. In some cases, lawyers who had previously responded to interview requests for other research projects simply did not return telephone calls, believing that ours was not a new request. In other cases, it appears that perhaps legal aid lawyers are simply "burned out," and are not inclined to participate in further legal aid research.

1.3 Outline of the report

Section 2 presents the findings based on the literature review and key informant interviews. Information is organized according to the main research questions identified in the Statement of Work. Section 3 presents summary observations and conclusions.


  • [2] The second study, which was conducted by Thérèse Lajeunesse and Associates, is based on the perceptions of inmates, corrections officials and prisoner advocates, !FLAGin addition to a review of corrections and other relevant documents
  • [3] British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Québec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. Note that we only present detailed information from seven of these jurisdictions, since no interviews were conducted with respondents from Saskatchewan. Initial inquiries found that, in Saskatchewan, legal aid does not provide any services to inmates other than for new criminal charges while in custody.
  • [4] Some jurisdictions thought that they would be able to isolate the prisoners included in the database by the postal code of the institution. However, this was not possible.
  • [5] Nova Scotia is trying to determine if it is possible to definitely identify prison inmates by drawing files from the database that are dealt with by the paralegal. However, it is likely that this approach will also provide no data, given that some non-prison inmate files may also be included in the paralegal's list. The legal issues codes may or may not be sufficient to distinguish between prison inmates and others.
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