Legal aid roles and responsibilities

"Legal aid" is the term used for legal assistance to persons who cannot afford to pay a lawyer from their own resources. In Alberta, legal aid is provided through Legal Aid Alberta. Legal Aid Alberta (often referred to as simply "Legal Aid") is independent of government, and the government has no involvement in appointing counsel in individual cases. Legal Aid Alberta does receive funding by way of an annual grant from the provincial government, through Alberta Justice.

Legal Aid Alberta delivers both criminal (including young offender) and civil legal aid. Criminal legal aid is cost shared with the federal government, through the Department of Justice Canada. There is a relatively small federal contribution to civil legal aid included in a general block transfer of funds from the Department of Human Resources and Social Development Canada. Other sources of funding are the Alberta Law Foundation (interest from lawyers' trust accounts) and client payment contributions (payments and partial payments).

Legal Aid Alberta makes assistance available free of charge to all persons who request it in most criminal courts of first appearance (i.e. docket court). The lawyers who provide this service are known as duty counsel, and may be either staff lawyers or lawyers in private practice who are being paid for the day. There is no eligibility testing for this service. It is available to anyone requesting it, although if the court is very busy, priority is given to persons in custody. The duty counsel service is a major legal aid program.

Individuals may also apply to have a lawyer appointed to represent them. To receive legal aid in this way, the applicant must be financially eligible and have the type of problem that Legal Aid Alberta is allowed to cover. Persons who receive legal aid are required to repay unless it would cause severe hardship. Many people repay by means of small monthly payments. There is no interest charged.

A board of directors that deals with policy issues governs the Legal Aid Alberta, which in turn is responsible to the Law Society of Alberta and the Minister of Justice for Alberta. Board members are not paid for their service on the board.

There are 11 Legal Aid offices in the province. The provincial office is located in Edmonton, sharing space with the regional office. The province is divided into northern and southern districts, and within these, into 11 regions. The regional offices are located in Calgary, Edmonton, Fort McMurray, Grande Prairie, Lethbridge, Medicine Hat, Peace River, Red Deer, St. Paul, Wetaskiwin, and Whitecourt. Staff from these offices travel on circuits to many surrounding communities.

For the most part, the legal aid system in Alberta is delivered by lawyers in private practice who bill Legal Aid Alberta instead of their clients. Legal Aid Alberta's tariff of fees is significantly lower than the fees that would generally be paid to a lawyer on a private retainer. In Edmonton and Calgary there are full-time staff lawyers who take cases in much the same manner as private bar lawyers.

Legal aid to young persons charged under the Youth Criminal Justice Act (formerly the Young Offenders Act) (Canada) is delivered in Edmonton and Calgary by staff lawyers who are paid a salary and who work directly for Legal Aid Alberta. In other parts of the province, legal aid for youths is provided by the private bar.

The Youth Criminal Justice Act (Canada) provides that a young person who is not eligible for legal aid may ask that a lawyer be appointed for him by the youth court judge, and that a lawyer so appointed be paid by the Attorney General for the province. In Alberta, by agreement between the Law Society and Alberta Justice, the Attorney General's Court-ordered Counsel Program is administered by Legal Aid Alberta. Additional information may be found on the Legal Aid Alberta website, under "What We Do - Youth Criminal Defence Offices."

See also:
Legal Aid