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

Alberta children whose only symptom of COVID-19 is a runny nose or a sore throat will no longer require mandatory isolation, starting Monday.
477 new COVID-19 cases confirmed in Alberta on Thursday

Changes being made to the COVID-19 symptom list for school-age children

Three young Sylvan Lake residents are asking for lights to be added to the walking trail system to make them safer and less scary at night. Photo by @workinonmyfitness72
Young Sylvan Lake residents ask for lights to be added to walking trails

Three young Sylvan Lake residents appeared before Council recently to present their ask

Agriculture Minister Devin Dreeshen (Alberta government photo)
Town of Sylvan Lake recieves funding to help with COVID-19 related revenue losses

Minister Devin Dreeshen says the funding will help the Town pay staff and provide services

There were 410 COVID-19 cases recorded in Alberta Wednesday. (File photo by The Associated Press)
Alberta records 410 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday

Central zone dropped to 160 active cases

Shaun Isaac, owner of Woodchucker Firewood in Trochu, is awaiting a new shipment during a firewood shortage in the province. All of the wood he has left is being saved for long-time customers who need it to heat their homes. (Contributed photo).
Firewood shortage in central Alberta caused by rising demand, gaps in supply

‘I’ve said “No” to more people than ever’: firewood seller

Pilots Ilona Carter and Jim Gray of iRecover Treatment Centres, in front of his company’s aircraft, based at Ponoka’s airport. (Perry Wilson/Submitted)
95-year-old Ilona Carter flies again

Takes to the skies over Ponoka

Children’s backpacks and shoes are seen at a daycare in Langley, B.C., on Tuesday May 29, 2018. Alberta Children’s Services Minister Rebecca Schulz says the province plans to bring in a new way of licensing and monitoring child-care facilities. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Alberta proposes legislation to change rules on child-care spaces

Record-keeping, traditionally done on paper, would be allowed digitally

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shakes hands with US Vice-President Joe Biden on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, December 9, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle
A Biden presidency could mean good news for Canadian environment policy: observers

Experts and observers say even a U.S. outside the Paris agreement may ultimately end up in the same place

People take a photo together during the opening night of Christmas Lights Across Canada, in Ottawa, on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019. The likelihood that most Canadians will enjoy a holly jolly Christmas season of gatherings, caroling and travel is unlikely, say public health experts who encourage those who revel in holiday traditions to accept more sacrifices ahead. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
Ho, ho, no: Experts advise preparing for a scaled-back COVID holiday season

Many of the holiday season’s highlights have already been scrapped or are unlikely to take place

Sen. Kim Pate is shown in Toronto in an October 15, 2013, file photo. The parliamentary budget office says a proposed law that would give judges discretion on whether to apply a lesser sentence for murder could save the federal government $8.3 million per year. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Colin Perkel
Judicial discretion for mandatory minimum sentences for murder would save $8.3M: PBO

The result would be fewer people in long-term custody at federal correctional institutions, experts say

Husky Energy logo is shown at the company’s annual meeting in Calgary on May 5, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Husky pipeline spills 900,000 litres of produced water in northwestern Alberta

The energy regulator says environmental contractors are at the site

A raccoon paid a visit to a Toronto Tim Hortons on Oct. 22, 2020. (shecallsmedrew/Twitter)
Who are you calling a trash panda? Raccoon takes a shift at Toronto Tim Hortons

Tim Hortons said animal control was called as soon they saw the surprise visitor

Most Read