Access to justice. Stock photo by Getty Images
Hiring a lawyer can be expensive for many Canadians, so the government attempts to provide alternatives for people who need legal help but can’t afford it.
This is where the legal aid programs come in. Provincial and territorial governments provide funding to make lawyers more accessible, but legal aid is intended for a very specific class of “economically disadvantaged” Canadians. People seeking legal help need to meet a certain threshold in order to qualify.
Those criteria vary from province to province and focus primarily on income, although other assets may be factor in as well.
In Ontario in 2018, a family of three could qualify for legal aid if the household income is less than $28,503. Alternatively, that family could still get partial funding with an income under $35,088.
In B.C. in 2018, a three-person family must have a monthly income under $2,840.
However, B.C. and many other provinces will also examine your other assets, such as real estate, cash, investments, cars, and other property.
If you have low income, but five cars or a large RRSP, you’d likely be told to liquidate those assets and pay your own way.
Aside from the financial concerns, there are case-specific considerations. Legal aid doesn’t apply to every type of case or criminal offence. When you apply, a legal aid representative will examine your case and determine your eligibility.
Legal aid generally applies to:
- criminal cases;
- family law (including spousal support, child welfare, custody, access and more);
- immigration and refugee cases;
- domestic violence;
- civil law (including housing, debt and employment issues);
- aboriginal Peoples.
In criminal cases, the likelihood of going to jail is a major factor in your eligibility. This depends on the charge as well as aggravating or mitigating circumstances.
Eligibility can also affect the type of legal help you can get. For example, some cases may get you duty counsel — a lawyer who can provide free advice, but can’t take on your entire case or represent you at trial — but not full legal representation.
Do I qualify for legal aid? (B.C.)
Legal aid across Canada