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

West Kootenay snowpack nearing record levels

High snowpack can mean a greater risk of flooding in spring, say forecasters

RDKB urges caution when reading into early snowpack reports

Staff say it’s too early in the season to have a strong handle on water flow projections

Treading snowy trails across the Boundary

Before the rain came this week, trails in the Boundary were well-travelled

Province looking at steps to dissolve Jumbo resort municipality

Disincorporating municipality will likely require a legislative change, according to the province

VIDEO: Music stars pay tribute to Kobe Bryant at Grammys award show

Music artists including Billy Ray Cyrus, Rick Ross and Kirk Franklin paid tribute to Bryant

Pregnant B.C. woman stuck in Wuhan, the epicentre of coronavirus outbreak

Woman is due to give birth in Wuhan, China unless she can get out

Victoria-area wolf tranquilized after being seen running around neighbourhood

Officials say wolf unharmed during its ‘arrest’

Ontario confirms second presumptive coronavirus case in wife of first patient

Both arrived on a China Southern Airlines flight after having been to Wuhan

Canada’s basketball community mourns Kobe Bryant after helicopter crash

Bryant was an 18-time NBA all-star who won five championships

‘Devastated’: Fans, celebrities remember Kobe Bryant after his death

Bryant played all of his 20-year career with the NBA with the Los Angeles Lakers

Kobe Bryant, daughter killed in California helicopter crash

Bryant entered the NBA draft straight out of high school in 1996

Investigation launched after six dead puppies dumped in Richmond hotel parking lot

RAPS reminds people they can always give up puppies they can’t take care of

Canadian Lunar New Year celebrations dampened by coronavirus worries

But Health Minister Patty Hajdu said today that the risk of infection is low

Most Read