David and Collet Stephan are charged with failing to provide the necessaries of life to 19-month-old Ezekiel who died in March 2012. (File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Many of Canada’s working poor can’t afford lawyers, don’t qualify for legal aid

One lawyer says many people earn too much to qualify for legal aid, but not enough to really live on

Legal experts say the justice system is failing Canada’s working poor, many of whom are unable to afford lawyers and end up pleading guilty or representing themselves in court.

In Alberta, legal aid isn’t available to anyone making more than $20,000 a year. In Ontario, the threshold is $17,731. B.C.’s limit is $19,560, while it’s slightly higher in Quebec at $22,750.

Ian Savage, president of the Calgary Criminal Defence Lawyers’ Association, says hiring a lawyer for trial can range from $1,500 to $10,000, depending on the lawyer’s experience.

“There’s obviously an entire class who don’t qualify for legal aid,” he says.

“The working poor cannot afford a private lawyer, full stop.”

Balfour Der, a veteran Calgary criminal defence lawyer, says many people make too much to qualify for legal aid, but not enough to really live on.

He’s noticed a rise in self-representation, which can bog down the courts. Other people give up and plead guilty when they shouldn’t, he adds.

“There’s probably an analogy to be drawn that people trying to seek out legal assistance is probably not much different than those people in the U.S. who are trying to get medical coverage but can’t afford it.”

Canadian Bar Association member Patricia Hebert, who practises family law in Edmonton, says people need more help because legal needs have become increasingly complex.

“People who tend to need legal-aid services and have lower incomes and can’t afford hiring a lawyer privately — that’s a pretty huge category of people right now.”

Finding efficiencies, providing legal advice and more public education could reduce pressure on the system, she suggests, but people are falling through the cracks.

“I am chronically a terrible sleeper because I’m carrying around in my head the myriad of problems of my own clients and of all the people we’re not yet getting to help.”

David Stephan says he and his wife racked up legal bills exceeding $1.2 million over two criminal trials and two appeals, including one to the Supreme Court of Canada. The Alberta couple was ultimately found not guilty earlier this year of failing to provide the necessaries of life for their toddler son, who died in 2012.

Court heard the boy had meningitis and the couple tried treating him with herbal remedies before he was rushed to hospital. The second trial judge found he died of a lack of oxygen.

READ MORE: ‘My son’s not breathing:’ 911 call played at Alberta meningitis death trial

“When this all began over seven years ago, we never realized that it would end up costing near this much. In our naivete, we didn’t expect it to be much more than a hundred thousand dollars,” Stephan says.

The family got help from relatives and sold assets, including their home. They also received about $300,000 in public donations from supporters.

Lisa Silver, a university of Calgary law professor, says there is no quick solution. Governments may be hesitant to increase legal aid-spending, but she urges them to be creative.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean a free lawyer. It can mean other things like more legal clinics, more duty counsel who work in the courts to just help with those difficult procedures. It could mean more advocates who aren’t necessarily lawyers.”

KEEP READING: Accused mother cries at Alberta trial over boy who died of meningitis

Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A second wave of COVID-19 is probable, if history tells us anything

B.C.’s top doctor says that what health officials have learned this round will guide response in future

Smithers woman awarded $55K in RCMP excessive force suit

Irene Joseph alleged false arrest and assault and battery related to a 2014 incident in Smithers

Flooding highly unlikely this year throughout Skeena watershed

Region’s snowpack among lowest in the province

Why I will relay

Wings of fight

The outside COVID-19 wave

Workers wave hello to being outside

LIVE: Procession to honour Snowbirds Capt. Jennifer Casey comes to Halifax

Snowbirds service member died in a crash in Kamloops one week ago

RCMP facing ‘systemic sustainability challenges’ due to provincial policing role

Provinces, territories and municipalities pay anywhere from 70 to 90 per cent of the cost of the RCMP’s services

One man dead after standoff with Chilliwack RCMP

The Independent Investigations Office of B.C. is investigating the RCMP’s role in the death

B.C. employers worry about safety, cash flow, second wave in COVID-19 restart

A survey found 75 per cent of businesses worry about attracting customers

Introducing the West Coast Traveller: A voyage of the mind

Top armchair travel content for Alaska, Yukon, BC, Alberta, Washington, Oregon and California!

Ex-BC Greens leader Andrew Weaver says province came close to early election

Disagreement centred on the LNG Canada project in northern B.C.

Canada’s NHL teams offer options to season-ticket holders

Canadian teams are offering refunds, but also are pushing a number of incentives to let them keep the money

B.C. premier says lessons to learn from past racism during response to pandemic

B.C. formally apologized in the legislature chamber in 2008 for its role in the Komagata Maru tragedy

Snowbirds to remain at Kamloops Airport indefinitely after fatal crash

small contingent of the Snowbirds team is staying in Kamloops, acting as stewards of the jets

Most Read