Legal Aid Eligibility and Coverage in Canada
The LSS assesses the applicant's financial status to determine their net household income and assets. There are two maximum income levels: one for criminal and one for all other matters. The income/asset guidelines set out the LSS income and personal property assets guidelines by family size. Applicants whose income and assets are above the eligibility limits can still receive legal information and summary advice. There are a series of allowable assets in the form of property and liquid assets. In this analysis, we will include the category of "income + assets" to evaluate whether this has any effect on the difference between the guidelines and the LICO.
Observing the results in Table 4-1, we see that for rural areas, the LSS income allowance guidelines tend to be well above corresponding post-tax LICO levels. Poor families in rural areas would be covered by the guidelines, as would a proportion of non-poor families. The largest differences are found within the two-and three-person family categories, where the guidelines surpass the LICO amounts by $2,815 to $3,392. The allowance for a two-person family appears to be generous even when examining all the other urban areas, with the exception of those areas with 500,000+. In all these cases, the allowance for a two-person family is above the LICO. There is greater congruence in the areas 100,000 to 499,999, where the difference is approximately $87. Even at the 500,000+ level, the two-person family allowance represents the smallest difference, compared to the other family sizes. For all other family sizes, the guidelines fall below the LICO levels starting in small urban areas with a population of less than 30,000. The gap continues to grow with the increase in urban area size and family size.
When we examine the "income + assets" category, the income guidelines surpass the LICO levels for all family sizes for rural and small areas. This trend continues for urban areas between 30,000 and 499,999 people, with the exception of 1- person families and families with 7 or more members. However, the single-person family difference is quite small between $40 and $230. Again, for the largest centres, except for two-person families, all the others guidelines fall below the LICO. The addition of the assets to the income, which range from $2,000 to a maximum of $6,000 has the effect of decreasing the differences by a significant amount and up until the largest urban area, is substantially higher than the LICO, with some exceptions. But, even for the largest urban areas, it has the effect of almost halving the difference compared to the straight income level.
Having investigated how closely the LSS guidelines match the LICO, we can now turn to examine how many families in British Columbia would be eligible for legal aid. An examination of how many families are eligible for legal aid, given the legal aid financial eligibility rules (income guidelines)
In table 5-1, we see that, overall, 181,500 families in British Columbia would be eligible for legal aid.
There are some 250,000 poor families in British Columbia, and of those, 68% would be eligible for legal aid. The proportion of single-person families that are eligible is 67% representing 110,130 single-person families in British Columbia. While single-person families make up the larger number of eligible families, they do not have the highest proportion of those eligible as a sub-group of family size. There is a larger proportion of two-person families who are eligible at 79% but they represent a smaller number at 31,885 families. The larger families with four or more members are less likely to qualify at 49%.
In all, 32% of all poor families do not qualify for eligibility based primarily on income.
Alberta, as stated earlier, has two main guidelines based on annual allowable gross income and family size. The first is the standard set of cut-offs. But, applicants whose family income exceeds the relevant cut-off for financial eligibility may be extended coverage on a contributing basis. In table 4-2, you will see annual allowable gross income figures for "free legal" and a column indicating the yearly allowable gross income contribution range. Both are measured against the pre-tax LICO. Please note there is really no such thing as free legal aid in Alberta. There is a requirement of some form of payment for both levels if the applicant is able to repay without causing undue hardship.
In table 4-2, we see that for rural areas, the Legal Aid Society's guidelines are above the before-tax LICO. The largest difference occurs for two-person families where the allowance is $26,004 and the LICO is at $ 15,178 (a $10,826 difference). When one examines the maximum income contribution ranges, there is a significant difference compared to the LICO, as the maximum income levels surpass the LICO by $8,000 to almost $11,000.
As the urban areas get larger, the LICO levels surpass the allowable gross income guidelines, for all family sizes. There is some congruence for three-person families in small urban areas of less than 30,000 and the LICO. Larger families see a bigger difference between the allowable income levels and the LICO, and the gap gets larger as the urban area gets larger. When we examine those areas over 500,000, the gap between the income guidelines and the LICO for larger families is between $9,000 and $11,000.
The maximum income contribution levels surpass the LICO except for the largest urban areas. Again, those at a disadvantage are larger families of four or more people, where there is a gap between $2,067 and $4,755.
Overall, except for rural areas, the allowable gross income guidelines are below the LICO. The maximum income contribution range, however, exceeds the low income cut-offs except in the largest urban areas and for families with over four people. As such, we expect to see a larger proportion of Albertans financially eligible for legal aid with contributions.
Examination of how many families are eligible for legal aid, given the legal aid financial eligibility rules (income guidelines)
Under the annual allowable gross income category, in Table 5-2, we find that 170,400 Albertans would qualify under the income component of the financial eligibility test. Whereas, using the maximum contribution range cut-offs, this increases the number to 36,400 (30.4%) Albertans. In both cases, there are some non-poor members that would qualify, although under the annual allowance levels, they are too few to mention. Under the extended coverage, 12.1% of all non-poor Albertans would qualify. This would probably take into account some of the people classified as the "near poor" as well as those from the smaller urban and rural areas.
Sixty-five percent of all poor Albertans are eligible for legal aid under the annual allowable levels. When we further break this down by family size, 66% of all single-person families would qualify, representing a total of 105,959 Albertans. The largest proportion of families who qualify are three-person families at 77%. Only 56% of larger families, those with four members or more, would qualify. This is consistent with what we found when comparing the Annual Income Levels to the LICO levels.
Under the extended coverage, 99% of all poor families qualify for legal aid. Those with low income and not covered may be larger families or families living in the larger cities. This is consistent with the findings when one studies the eligibility by family size. Families consisting of one to three members are all covered under the extended coverage. A small percentage of those in larger families, however, are not covered.
The extended eligibility that is created through the expanded contribution ranges, allows the vast majority of those families who are poor and some non-poor families to pass the financial eligibility criteria. It should also be noted, that the Legal Aid Society of Alberta states that they often exercise discretion in favour of the applicants who are slightly above the guidelines.
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