A Profile of Legal Aid Services in Family Law Matters in Canada
- 2.3 Nova Scotia
In 1971, Nova Scotia passed the Legal Aid Planning Act, which established legal aid in the province, to be delivered by staff lawyers located in staff offices throughout the province. Responsibility for administering legal aid rested with the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society and, at that time, legal aid was available to individuals whose income placed them at or below the poverty level.
The present Legal Aid Act was passed in 1977 and transferred control for legal aid from the Barristers’ Society to the Nova Scotia Legal Aid Commission. The model used in Nova Scotia remains a staff lawyer one, except in cases of conflict of interest or criminal choice of counsel in cases where the penalty for a criminal charge is mandatory life imprisonment. In such cases, a private lawyer on tariff is retained. The current tariff for family law matters in Nova Scotia is $50 per hour.
As of March 31, 2000, there were 64 staff lawyers. The Legal Aid Commission also provides partial funding to the Dalhousie Legal Aid service in Halifax-Dartmouth, in which law students, under the supervision of practising lawyers, provide legal services.
The highest priority for legal aid coverage in Nova Scotia is reserved for criminal matters. Child protection proceedings are also considered high priority. Family law matters where there is a threat of family violence or where child custody is involved are also a high priority. Other family law matters are a lower priority. Family law issues that are excluded from legal aid coverage are: (1) uncontested adoption proceedings; (2) change of name (unless part of a divorce proceeding); and (3) delayed birth registrations.
Individuals are considered eligible for legal aid in Nova Scotia if they are on social assistance or if their income is equivalent to someone on social assistance. Financial eligibility for family legal aid in Nova Scotia is based on a needs test, which is based primarily on income, but may also include expenses, debt load, and assets. Examples of the current gross annual income cut-offs are: one adult – $12,804; two adults – $17,088; one adult and one child – $16,992; two adults and one child – $20,496; one adult and two children – $20,400; two adults and two children – $23,184; one adult and three children – $23,088; and two adults and three children – $25,872.
The number of divorce cases accepted for legal aid coverage has dropped dramatically over the past several years: in 1987/88, 1067 divorce cases were completed by legal aid; this number had dropped to 1026 in 1994/95 and 417 in 1999/2000. According to the Executive Director of the Nova Scotia Legal Aid Commission, this dramatic reduction has been due, in part, to a shortage of staff resources – because of a lack of funding and also because of the increasing complexity of documentation and court procedures in divorce cases, which means that a larger amount of staff time is required for each case.
Another major change in recent years in legal aid in Nova Scotia has been a dramatic rise in the costs devoted to child protection cases. In 1991, approximately $500,000 of the legal aid budget was devoted to child protection proceedings; by 1999/2000 this amount had risen to $1,231,800. This dramatic increase in spending for these cases has also necessitated a decrease in resources available for other family law cases.
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