Statement made on 04 November 2010 by Senator Catherine Callbeck
Hon. Catherine S. Callbeck:
Honourable senators, legal aid, both criminal and civil, was on the agenda at last month's federal, provincial and territorial meeting of justice ministers. Provincial and territorial ministers once again asked their federal counterpart to consider the strategic importance of civil legal aid. Once again, the Minister of Justice agreed only to take their concerns back to his federal colleagues. For the last few years, the federal minister has refused to engage in meaningful discussions with the provinces on this matter — legal aid — even though we face a crisis in the area.
As many will know, civil legal aid includes both family law, such as child support and custody issues, and poverty law, that is, people who have lost employment or need to obtain disability or income security benefits. This problem affects all of Canada's low-income population, which often includes women and children, people with disabilities, recent immigrants and Aboriginal peoples. There are all kinds of stories about people having to represent themselves in court because they cannot afford a lawyer and they cannot obtain legal aid.
Islander Daphne Dumont, a highly respected lawyer, advocate and 2009 recipient of the Governor General's Award in Commemoration of the Persons Case, spoke about the lack of legal aid at a recent reception held by the Lieutenant-Governor of Prince Edward Island. She noted that "the basic access to justice is lacking" and called funding for civil legal aid a "perpetual problem."
Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin has said:
Providing legal aid to low-income Canadians is an essential public service. We need to think of it in the same way we think of health care or education. The well being of our justice system — and the public's confidence in it — depends on it.
Our current civil legal aid system is a tragedy waiting to happen. It threatens people's rights and undermines the rule of law. I urge the Minister of Justice to reconsider his stance on civil legal aid, and work with his provincial counterparts to create a national funding stream for this much-needed service.