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

VIDEO: Not business as usual as Nelson slowly reopens

Local owners talk about the pandemic has changed how they operate

City of Nelson takes over farmers’ markets from EcoSociety

Markets start June 13 and will be run by the Nelson and District Youth Centre

School District announces Rick Hansen Foundation difference-maker award winners

Creston student Alexis Folk and Nelson teacher Chris Mieske recognized by the Rick Hansen Foundation

Nelson offers financing for homeowners to purchase electric bikes

Loan payments will be applied to hydro bills as part of the EcoSave home retrofit program

Pay guarantee removed for some Kootenay on-call paramedics

Guarantee phased out as BCEHS introduces a new “scheduled on call” model

Trudeau offers $14B to provinces for anti-COVID-19 efforts through rest of year

Making a difference in municipalities is a pricey proposition

Help the Nelson Star continue its mission to provide trusted local news

Black Press is now accepting donations to keep its papers operating

Friends, family mourn Salt Spring Island woman killed in suspected murder-suicide

A GoFundMe comapaign has been launched for Jennifer Quesnel’s three sons

‘I’m pissed, I’m outraged’: Federal minister calls out police violence against Indigenous people

Indigenous Minister Marc Miller spoke on recent incidents, including fatal shooting of a B.C. woman

Indigenous families say their loved ones’ deaths in custody are part of pattern

Nora Martin joins other Indigenous families in calling for a significant shift in policing

‘Alarmed’: Health critic calls for more data on COVID-19 in trucking industry

Saskatchewan, Ontario and Quebec said that level of detail is not being collected

UPDATED: Pair accused of ‘horrific’ assault at Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park arrested

Police say Jason Tapp, 30, and Nicole Edwards, 33, did not show up to meet their bail supervisor this week

Kelowna Mountie who punched suspect identified, condemned by sister

‘How did he get away with this? How is this justifiable?’

PHOTOS: Anti-racism protesters gather in communities across B.C.

More protests are expected through the weekend

Most Read