Last week the Federal, Provincial and Territorial Ministers of Justice met in Charlottetown for an annual conference started four decades ago by then Minister of Justice John Turner. With the big price tag attached to the federal government’s omnibus crime bill C-10 and budget cuts on the horizon, there were no significant spending commitments by the federal government.
Legal aid is still on the agenda at these meetings, but barely. By my count, it is item number 16 out of 19 in the post-conference communiqué. Here is what the carefully-crafted language said:
Ministers affirmed their commitment to a responsive, fair, efficient and accessible justice system which includes access to legal aid and referenced the common statement of principles approved in October 2010. Provincial and territorial ministers asked the federal Minister of Justice for continued and enhanced federal funding support for criminal legal aid to address the continued pressures faced by all legal aid programs. They asked for early confirmation of the level of federal funding given that existing agreements expire at the end of March 2012. Provincial and territorial ministers also noted the need for renewed and enhanced funding for immigration and refugee legal aid for those jurisdictions offering such services
In a post last month, I reviewed efforts by former Minister of Justice to establish a national legal aid plan. In a time of budget cuts, we cannot expect that governments will invest in legal aid and access to justice. Solutions must come from us, within the legal profession or else we will wait while Ministers continue to “affirm their commitment” to an accessible justice system which includes access to legal aid.