A Profile of Legal Aid Services in Family Law Matters in Canada
Prince Edward Island is the only jurisdiction in Canada in which responsibility for the administration of legal aid falls under the direction of a government department, the office of the Attorney General.
Prince Edward Island has a legal aid system that utilizes a combination of staff lawyers and private counsel paid by a tariff. The tariff is $60 per hour, regardless of the years of experience of a private lawyer, up to a maximum of $1,200 per case. There is a ceiling on the number of preparatory hours that may be spent, depending on the type of case, but no limit on the number of hours spent on court time. Preparation time is negotiated at the time of authorization.
There is no panel of private legal aid lawyers in Prince Edward Island, and in 2000/01 a total of 20 private lawyers worked on legal aid files. A minority of legal aid cases are handled by private lawyers: in 2000/01, 22 percent of legal aid cases were handled by private lawyers working on tariff. The staff legal aid office in Prince Edward Island currently consists of one senior manager, four staff lawyers, and three secretaries.
Full legal aid coverage for family law matters in Prince Edward Island is restricted to cases of domestic violence, which is broadly defined in terms of both physical and emotional abuse, and to parents in cases of apprehension of children by the Children’s Aid Society.
In 1996, a special program was established, with funding from the Law Foundation to provide limited legal aid coverage by lawyers in private practice, for other domestic matters that do not fall under the full coverage provisions. This funding is separate from the legal aid budget, and potential clients do not apply directly to legal aid for coverage. Instead, application for coverage is made by the potential client’s lawyer directly to the Law Foundation. The Law Foundation is operated by the provincial Law Society and receives revenue from the interest on lawyers’ trust accounts.
A sliding scale, based on the number of family members, is used in Prince Edward Island to determine financial eligibility for family legal aid. The scale was increased in 2001, and the annual income cut-offs currently are: single person – $14,176; family of two – $17,720; family of three – $22,037; family of four – $26,677.
The bar in Prince Edward Island has expressed concern over the lack of legal aid funds available for family law issues. A recent report commissioned by the government of Prince Edward Island (Ross 1999) reviewed the provision of family law services and made several recommendations for their improvement. One major recommendation of the report was the establishment of a Family Justice Centre that would use a triage model to allocate legal and other professional services to eligible family law clients. Within this Centre, legal aid for all family law issues would be available for all low-income families. The emphasis in this Centre would be on non-adversarial methods of dispute resolution, such as mediation, in family law cases. The government of Prince Edward Island is planning to implement several recommendations from the Ross (1999) report, and plans are in progress for the establishment of a Family Justice Centre.
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