Posted by guest blogger: Alison
New Brunswick Justice Minister Michael Murphy is ordering a review of the province’s legal aid system to figure out why it is taking so long for people to access funding for family matters. Apparently, the N.B. legal aid system is backlogged to such an extent that people are having serious problems accessing any legal representation for important matters, including family law matters which disproportionately impact women and children.
Why are so many provinces struggling with the problem of backlogged legal aid systems? Well part of the reason at least must be the recent cuts to legal aid funding that we have seen across the country. In N.B. for instance, the Liberal government has cut legal aid funding by five per cent cut last year and three per cent in this year’s budget. The provincial budget allocated for legal aid in 2010-11 is $6.6 million.
So why are provinces cutting funding to these essential services when the consequences are so obviously terrible? Are the politicians making these decisions really so unaware of the difficulties that individual Canadians will face if they do not have access to legal representation? Or do they know the consequences but believe that the cuts are still necessary?
Murphy explains the N.B. Liberals’ position by saying that the cutbacks were necessary to balance the budget and that the cuts shouldn’t have affected frontline legal aid services. He explains that he expected the cuts to be made to the management and head office positions instead of legal aid services.
According to Murphy, if the legal aid administrators had made these cuts and reorganized their existing services, Legal Aid New Brunswick should have apparently been able to withstand the financial cuts without any changes to the legal services provided. However, this is not what happened.
The cuts have been made to numerous front line services leaving N.B. citizens to now suffer a serious backlog and trouble accessing legal services. As a result, legal aid for family law is now only able to deal with cases of domestic violence or involving children. Divorce, maintenance and shelter disputes go to the back of the line when it comes to accessing legal aid funding. The result of course is people living in limbo with ongoing maintenance and shelter disputes.
The N.B. government’s response to these problems has been to order a review of legal aid due by February 2010. Is this really the next step to solving the legal aid backlog? Spending more money to perform a review? Apparently the N.B. government still prefers to ignore the fact that cutting back funding results is lower service levels. They appear to be searching for a magic solution in which legal aid is still funded at the lower levels but is able to operate efficiently. Good luck to them.
While a review may ultimately be helpful to better understand and administer the legal aid system, the N.B. government should be prepared that the result of their “review” is likely to be the conclusion that the province needs to reinvest more money in legal aid.