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)

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

Toronto Public Health nurse Lalaine Agarin makes preparations at Toronto’s mass vaccination clinic, Jan. 17, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
3 deaths, 234 new cases of COVID-19 in Interior Health over the weekend

One death connected to outbreak at Kamloops’ Royal Inland Hospital, where 20 patients and 28 staff have tested positive

People skate on a lake in a city park in Montreal, Sunday, January 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
The end of hugs: How COVID-19 has changed daily life a year after Canada’s 1st case

Today marks the one year anniversary of COVID-19 landing in Canada

A member of the Avalanche Canada South Rockies field team gathers important snowpack data that is used to produce daily avalanche forecasts for the region. (Photo by Jennifer Coulter)
Avalanche Canada receives $180k for office renovations

The money was granted through Community Gaming Grant

The rocks are painted and then hidden around town. Those who find them can keep them, leave them where they are or hide them elsewhere. (Submitted)
Spreading love and kindness in Nakusp

New group launched to nurture rock painting and hunting community

Crews with Discovery Channel film as an Aggressive Towing driver moves a Grumman S2F Tracker aircraft around a 90-degree turn from its compound and onto the road on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021. It was the “most difficult” part of the move for the airplane, one organizer said. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
VIDEO: Vintage military plane gets towed from Chilliwack to Greater Victoria

Grumman CP-121 Tracker’s eventual home the British Columbia Aviation Museum on Vancouver Island

Heather Barker. (File)
Manslaughter charge laid in Vernon woman’s 2018 death

Shaun Ross Wiebe, 43, faces manslaughter and assault charges related to the death of Heather Barker

Zaudanawng “Jay-Dan” Maran in his Creston home. Hanging on the wall behind him is a logo of Kachin’s Manaw festival. Photo: Aaron Hemens
From Myanmar to Creston: The story of a refugee

In October 2007, Zaudanawng “Jay-Dan” Maran and his friends encountered a woman being sexually assaulted by two Myanmar soldiers.

Kamloops This Week.
48 COVID-19 cases and one death associated with outbreak at Kamloops hospital

One of the 20 patients infected has died, meanwhile 28 staff with COVID-19 are isolating at home

The City of Vernon is sending a letter to the provincial government to request that church be deemed an essential service amid the pandemic. (Brendan Shykora - Morning Star)
Vernon mayor scolded for revealing stance on making church essential

Coun. Scott Anderson calls Cummings’ actions ‘arrogant’

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

The scene of a serious crash on Highway 33 in Kelowna that killed one and severely injured two others on June 20, 2018. (File)
Driver found guilty of causing death, injury in 2018 Kelowna crash

Travis Ryan Hennessy will face sentencing at a later date

(Michael Rodriguez - Capital News staff)
Downtown stairwell fire suspicious, Kelowna RCMP say

Crews were called to Gotham Nightclub for a report of a stairwell fire

Rolling seven-day average of cases by B.C. health authority to Jan. 21. Fraser Health in purple, Vancouver Coastal red, Interior Health orange, Northern Health green and Vancouver Island blue. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control)
2nd COVID vaccine doses on hold as B.C. delivery delayed again

New COVID-19 cases slowing in Fraser Health region

Most Read