What If I Can’t Afford a Lawyer?
If you feel that you need a lawyer but cannot afford to retain one privately, then you may apply for legal aid. If your case, whether criminal or civil, is the kind of matter covered by Legal Aid, and if you fall within the financial guidelines for legal aid, then your application will be approved. Contact the Legal Aid office closest to you for information (telephone numbers are provided in the back of this book).
Legal Aid officers also make regular visits to remand centres and correctional and psychiatric institutions to take applications. You may arrange for an interview by requesting it from the staff in these places. If there is a Legal Aid office in your area, and you are not in custody, then you should call the local office to arrange an interview. When you go to the appointment, bring with you any legal papers you may have been served with and all of the documentation that you have regarding your financial situation, such as last year’s income tax return, pay stubs, loan statements, proof that you are receiving Social Assistance, and so on. In order to decide whether you qualify financially, the Legal Aid officer will want to know how much money you earn, how many dependents you have, how much money you owe, and the value of any property which you may own.
When Should I Apply?
You should apply as soon as you are charged with a criminal offence. If you are under investigation by the police and charges have not been laid, you may wish to consult a lawyer about your situation. In a civil matter, you should apply as soon as you have been served with legal documents, or as soon as you see the need to bring a legal action against someone else. If the matter is urgent, as in the case of a Restraining Order or Emergency Protection Order, you should indicate this when you make your appointment.
What Can I Do If I Am Refused Legal Aid?
If your application is refused by the Legal Aid staff, you have the right to appeal the refusal to the Regional Legal Aid Committee for your area. Your appeal must be in writing and delivered to the Legal Aid Office which refused you within thirty days of the date on which you were refused. It is often in your best interest to make a personal presentation to the Regional Committee. You must make sure to request this in your written appeal so that you will be notified of when and where to attend. If the Regional Committee rejects your appeal, you may then appeal to the Appeals Committee of the Board of Directors. The decision of the Appeals Committee is final.
Can Legal Aid Be Cancelled?
Legal Aid may be cancelled if it appears that information given in your application was inaccurate, if you did not abide by the conditions for coverage or if there was a material change in your financial circumstances since legal aid was granted. You will be notified in writing if the coverage is to be cancelled and you have the right to appeal.
What Matters Are Covered by Legal Aid?
Legal Aid is available for all serious offences including those under the Criminal Code, Narcotic Control Act, and Youth Criminal Justice Act. Serious offences are known as indictable offences: if found guilty then imprisonment and/or a large fine will generally result.
In less serious matters, known as summary conviction offences, legal aid is only available if a conviction would mean that you would go to jail, lose your means of earning a living or there are some other special circumstances involved such as a complicated and important legal issue. Some examples of less serious matters are traffic violations, breaking city or town bylaws or criminal charges such as causing a disturbance or theft under $5,000. Normally, in such matters, the penalty is only a fine unless there are other circumstances (for example, you are a repeat offender or your conduct showed that you have no respect for the law) which would justify a sentence of imprisonment.
The Legal Aid staff will be able to tell you if your problem would be covered by Legal Aid.
Does Legal Aid Cover Civil Cases?
Legal Aid may be available for any civil case within the jurisdiction of the courts. There are exclusions, so check with the Legal Aid Office to find out what is covered.
Is Legal Aid Available for Criminal and Civil Appeals?
Legal Aid may be available for appeals from a decision of a court. There are special rules of eligibility; check with your local Legal Aid Office.
Family Law Project
Starting in 2001, Legal Aid the Family Law Project to deliver family law services through salaried staff lawyers operating out of Calgary and Edmonton. Any request for family law services in either of these cities is referred to the Family Law Office. Clients residing outside these centres will continue to be referred to lawyers in the private bar, although you may request representation through the Family Law Office. There is contact information for these offices in the Legal and Community Resources section.
Is Legal Aid Free?
Services provided by Legal Aid are not free but cost much less than private fees because lawyers who accept Legal Aid cases do so at discounted rates. When your case is finished, the Society will normally seek repayment. No person is refused Legal Aid coverage only because he or she may not be able to repay the money later. If it would cause real hardship for you to make the repayment, the Society will work out terms which will not put too great a strain on your resources. Occasionally, you may be asked to provide some sort of security for repayment such as signing a promissory note or a mortgage at zero percent interest. If you fail to meet the requirements set by the Society, your coverage may be refused or cancelled.
Does the Legal Aid System Differ for Young People?
Young people under eighteen charged with offences under the Youth Criminal Justice Act are entitled to legal aid regardless of their parents’ income. In some cases, where the parents or youth are wealthy, Legal Aid will initially refuse the application, and the youth will then have to ask the Youth Court judge to order the appointment of a lawyer and send the matter back to Legal Aid.
In Calgary and Edmonton, young people who receive legal aid are referred to the Youth Criminal Defence Office and, except for very rare circumstances, must use one of the lawyers working in that office. (This differs from the adult system, where you can choose any lawyer who accepts Legal Aid cases.) Even for young persons, legal aid is not free. When the case is concluded, the young person receives an account for the services provided by lawyers appointed by the Legal Aid Society. These accounts are generally for much lesser amounts than those of lawyers retained privately, and the Society is usually sensitive to the financial situation of the young person when attempting to collect payment.