A Profile of Legal Aid Services in Family Law Matters in Canada

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

This report describes service delivery models, coverage and financial eligibility provisions, as well as case volumes and expenditures. It also presents information on innovative approaches to service delivery including non-litigation legal aid services such as mediation and summary advice that are offered by some jurisdictions.

Methodology

The information for this study was gathered from legal aid plans over the summer of 2001. In addition, information was also gathered from published documents such as annual reports, brochures, and evaluation reports that were provided. The published literature on family legal aid in Canada was also reviewed in the study.

A gender issue

The report emphasizes that the availability of family legal aid is an important issue for women. Women make up at least 70 percent of clients in family legal aid cases in all jurisdictions.

Coverage

The coverage policies for family legal aid result in unequal levels of service across Canada. While legal aid plans list a fairly consistent range of legal matters that may be covered, in practice, coverage policies in several jurisdictions give priority to matters in which domestic violence is a factor, and to child apprehensions. The real differences from one jurisdiction to the next are in the amount of family legal aid provided.

Accessibility

The accessibility of legal aid in family matters, as measured by per capita approved applications, varies considerably from one jurisdiction to the next. The rate of approved applications ranges from a low of 175 per 100,000 population to 1170 per 100,000. This is nearly a seven-fold difference from the lowest to the highest level of accepted applications.

Expenditures

Provinces spend widely varying amounts on family legal aid. The variations in levels of per capita expenditure on family legal aid are similar to the differences in per capita approved applications. Per capita expenditures in the provinces ranged from $1.47 to $5.82. This represents a four-fold difference in spending on family legal aid among these jurisdictions.

There are also significant differences in the average cost per case for delivering family legal aid. The overall cost per case for family legal aid in the provinces ranged from $405 to $1,536.

Financial eligibility

The financial eligibility guidelines that apply to family law applicants vary considerably. Legal aid plans use different approaches to determining financial eligibility. Some use needs tests that take into account income, assets and expenses. Others rely more on income cut-offs. Annual income cut-offs for a single person vary widely across jurisdictions, from a low of $4,716 to a high of $14,176. Generally speaking, individuals receiving social assistance are automatically eligible for legal aid coverage. In addition, individuals who do not meet the criteria for free legal aid coverage may still be eligible for contributory legal aid, in which clients pay some portion of legal aid costs.

The literature highlights concerns that eligibility criteria for legal aid tend to be at or near social assistance income levels. As a result, individuals who are "working poor" or have very limited means may be ineligible for legal aid, and may be forced to represent themselves, or simply be unable to seek relief in the justice system.

Innovations

Pilot projects are under way in several legal aid plans to examine the cost-effectiveness of staff lawyer delivery compared with judicare. As well, several legal aid plans are developing non-litigation strategies such as mediation and other forms of out-of-court dispute resolution methods to resolve family law matters.

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