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The ROI from funding legal aid

As the 2019 federal election campaign unfolds, how is it that we talk so little about improving legal aid?

Pascale Pageau, Ad. E., Présidente de l’ABC-Québec

As the 2019 federal election campaign unfolds, I wonder about the silence around the important issue of improving legal aid.

It’s an issue that doesn’t get enough attention. Not because it doesn’t affect thousands of people each year, or because that impact is insignificant. Rather, the problem is that most people just don’t think it will happen to them or the people they care about.

And yet, recent research shows that almost half the population over 18 will have some sort of legal issue in any three-year period.  Any number of the people we encounter daily could be on the brink of a personal catastrophe because of a legal problem they aren’t equipped to address.

An unaddressed legal problem can set off a domino effect in peoples’ lives, creating more problems – and increased costs for government: a person unjustly fired may end up on social assistance, or a tenant evicted may end up homeless. People already living on the margins tend to have more complex and intersecting legal needs, and ignoring those needs can deepen existing social inequalities.

Many people tend to write off the people who do encounter problems as being the authors of their own misfortune, as if legal issues don’t happen to good people. It’s important to understand that they can happen to anybody, at any time, and when they do, the system often isn’t there to help. Even if they are poor enough to qualify for legal aid, the type of help they need might not be available because legal aid plans limit the services they offer, even for truly essential matters.

Government contributions to legal assistance started declining in the mid-1990s, and it’s only recently that the federal government has started putting some money back into the system. That money, however, rarely goes to family law and other civil matters, where it’s desperately needed.

Legal assistance is not a luxury, something that’s nice to have but easy to do without in hard times.

Legal aid spending has a track record of impressive return on investment. It can help governments save money. International research has estimated that for every dollar spent on legal aid, another $6 is saved elsewhere on the spectrum. In Canada, we know that unresolved everyday legal problems cost governments at least $800 million a year – for additional social assistance, employment insurance, health care and emergency housing.

A 2009 study in Texas found that every dollar the government spent on civil legal aid resulted in overall economic gains for the state amounting to $7.42 in total spending, $3.52 in GDP and $2.29 in personal income.

Legal aid isn’t a handout for people who get themselves into trouble, it’s vital for access to justice, and equal access is essential for any society that would call itself democratic.

Our next government should be willing to take the long-term view and realize that allocating stable, sustainable funding to legal aid will save millions of dollars in other areas, while at the same time making Canada a better country.

The Canadian Bar Association is challenging the federal parties to explain how their government would take a leadership role on this important question.

#LegalAidMatters. Help make this an election issue!