In a pro bono clinic that I started in Saint John, N.B., I came across Robert. Robert had worked in a flooring warehouse for eight years, and to his surprise, was suddenly fired, out the door with two weeks’ severance pay. He was worried he’d lose his apartment because that wasn’t enough to cover his expenses while he found another job, but he couldn’t afford a lawyer to find out about his rights. Robert came to the clinic and learned that he was entitled to quite a bit more, which we were able to easily get for him because the ex-employer had misunderstood its obligations.
Getting the right legal help at the right time is critical, but unlikely to make it into most of the party platforms this election season.
There are more people like Robert, just one legal issue away from personal disaster, than many of us might think.
I’m not exaggerating: a recent study by the Canadian Forum on Civil Justice shows that nearly half of the population over 18 will face an issue requiring legal assistance in any given three-year period – an unjust firing, or divorce or child custody arrangements, or an illegal eviction, for example. And when people don’t get the help they need, those problems ripple out into other areas of their lives.
Lots of good people find it hard to relate to those who might need legal aid. We think they must have done something to bring on the problems, and judge them for not being able to afford the help they need. But their stories can be compelling and often involve people who cannot rightly be blamed for their predicaments – children, young people coming out of foster care, people with literacy or mental health challenges, women escaping family violence. Even people working full-time for minimum wage will qualify for legal aid in only a few provinces across the country – and minimum-wage earners are lucky to pay their bills, let alone set money aside for emergencies.
Making sure everyone has access to justice is not just some idealistic notion that can be indulged when there’s money – there’s a strong and convincing business case to be made for ensuring that legal assistance is there for those who need it.
Governments that would pride themselves on their ability to serve the bottom line would do well to pay heed to the numbers, which show an impressive return on investment. Legal aid spending usually results in a reduction in government spending, and can even bring economic growth.
Think of access to legal assistance as part of the spectrum of social services, like health care or education. One British study found that each legal problem that caused some sort of physical illness cost the National Health Service between £113-£528. Stress-related effects could cost more than £2200 per patient, depending on the service provider.
A 2009 study in Texas found that every dollar the government spent on civil legal aid resulted in overall economic gains for the state amounting to $7.42 in total spending – $3.52 in GDP and $2.29 in personal income. Studies in other U.S. states and in Australia have come to the same conclusions.
International research has shown that for every dollar spent on legal aid, another $6 is saved elsewhere on the spectrum. Unresolved everyday legal problems here at home cost governments at least $800 million a year – for additional social assistance, employment insurance, health care and emergency housing.
The Canadian Bar Association has challenged federal parties to explain how their governments would approach this important issue to ensure that vulnerable people are not further disadvantaged by the legal system. We need a government willing to take the long-term view and realize that allocating stable, sustainable funding to legal aid will save hundreds of millions of dollars in other areas.
#LegalAidMatters. What are you going to do about it?
John Gillis is a lawyer with Gilbert McGloan Gillis in Saint John, N.B. He is Chair of the CBA’s Access to Justice Subcommittee.