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Legal access for the most vulnerable

Wow, tardy in my posting! Will attempt to make up for it.

Today, I attended a Canadian Bar Association (CBA) Immigration Section meeting. The two speakers were from Legal Aid Alberta. Richard Bennett is Legal Aid's Calgary Immigration counsel.

Legal Aid provides legal services to individuals who cannot afford to hire private lawyers. It is limited to areas of law that have a direct impact on people's lives, liberty or security. Areas such as criminal law, family law, and immigration are examples. Each province has its own Legal Aid services. Funding is provided both by the Provincial and Federal Governments to varying degrees.

Legal Aid's immigration files only account for about 3% of all their work. Some of the types of immigration services offered include:

  • Refugee Claims
  • Admissibility hearings
  • Detention reviews
  • Removal Appeals for Permanent Residents
  • Ministerial Appeals
  • Judicial Review (related to above areas)
  • Legal advice (meaning no actual representation) for matters such as extensions, H&Cs, sponsorships, appeals, and PRRAs.
In order to get Legal Aid coverage, you have to meet their income requirements. That is, you have to earn less than their established income levels. These maximum income levels are incredibly low, meaning only a handful of people will ever qualify for legal aid. For example, for a family of 4, they total family income cannot exceed $2,333 per month (net)!

Applicants who qualify will be represented by the staff lawyer, or will be referred to a "roster" lawyer (a private lawyer who registers with Legal Aid to work on files). 

I think the most common type of immigration client for legal aid are those making a refugee claim. When someone comes to Canada and makes such a claim, they have virtually no money available to them. They are not able to get a work permit for several months, typically. So, they can get some legal aid assistance at the outset. However, often times, once the client gets their work permit, they make too much money to qualify for continued legal aid. 

It's sad that Legal Aid services have dwindled so much in the immigration world. It's an area of law that is very specialized and hiring an inexperienced lawyer can be disastrous to a person's life. I suppose it's better than the alternative - not having any funding at all!


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