News: Department of Justice Releases Dual Reports on Legal Aid in Canada

Written by Calvin Ediger

In July 2021 the Department of Justice’s Evaluation Branch released a report entitled Evaluation of the Legal Aid Program. Presented within was an evaluation of the effectiveness in federal funding for legal aid programs covering the fiscal years 2016-2017 to 2019-2020.[1] More information was released by the Department of Justice’s Research and Statistics Division and Legal Aid Directorate Department in their report Legal Aid in Canada 2019-2020, which summarizes statistics concerning legal aid in the provinces and territories.

Both reports noted that Legal Aid services were important in providing access to justice to underserved Canadians. Specifically, it was found that “[le]gal aid clients are among some of the most vulnerable Canadians, as they have few to no economic resources; are usually less educated; and typically have experienced mental illnesses, substance abuse, trauma, or other personal situations that impact their ability to respond to their legal situations.”[2] Demand for legal aid has remained fairly consistent year-on-year as demonstrated by the approximately 300,000 applications made across the country.[3]

Most provinces spent more on criminal legal aid programs than on civil, with Manitoba having the second highest proportion of expenditure on criminal matters compared to civil at 75%.[4] Nationally 80% of all legal aid applications are approved for full representation.[5] Manitoba refused 7,867 legal aid applications in 2019-20, out of those that largest proportion, 44%, were due to financial ineligibility.[6]

The largest variation in demand is seen in immigration and refugee legal applications, which have increased nationally by 44% between the fiscal years of 2016-2017 and 2019-2020.[7] The national proportion of federal to provincial funding for immigration and refugee legal aid programs has risen from 42% federally funded in 2016-2017, to 94% federally funded in 2019-2020.[8] In explaining this shift, the report noted that “provincial key informants commented that I&R [immigration and refugee] legal aid is considered an area of federal responsibility.”[9]

Uniquely, some federal funding is tied to innovation and service enhancements. When using this funding, jurisdictions need to report on “nature of criminal legal aid innovations implemented that target and/or enhance services for vulnerable populations, modernize processes using technology, enhance business practices, and/or support improved data collection and performance measurement.”[10] Manitoba notably had the highest number of legal aid innovations reported amongst the provinces and territories, at 26 over a four-year period.[11]

Legal Aid in Canada 2019-2020 gave more specifics on criminal legal aid innovations undertaken by provincial legal aid programs.  One such innovation was the expansion of the weekend bail project to Thompson.[12] The Thompson court faces unique challenges within the province, as it not only services Thompson proper but also “distant communities such as God’s River, Lac Brochet, Leaf Rapids, Norway House and South Indian Lake.”[13] Though phone-in bail hearings have been offered, issues have arisen due to a lack of lawyers being available to deal with the hearing. Further issues arise when the accused must be transported to Thompson, causing more delays.[14] It is hoped that “the weekend phone-in bail court could cut down on the delay and potentially lead to eligible accused being granted bail there in their home communities.”[15]

Earlier in 2020 an evening and overnight bail project was launched in Winnipeg in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.[16] Other initiatives in 2020 included the implementation of client satisfaction surveys, enhanced data collection on clients requiring accessibility resources, and enhanced data collection measures for Indigenous applicants.[17]

The Evaluation of the Legal Aid Program report ended with two recommendations. First, that options be explored for a national refugee legal aid program which would follow national standards. Second, that performance measurement and reporting be improved.[18]

[1] Department of Justice Canada, Report, “Evaluation of the Legal Aid Program Final Report” (July 2021) at page i.

[2] Ibid, at page 21.

[3] Ibid, at page 8.

[4] Department of Justice Canada, Report, “Legal Aid in Canada 2019-2020” (2021) at page 2.

[5] Ibid, at page 8.

[6] Ibid, at page 11.

[7] Department of Justice Canada, Report, “Evaluation of the Legal Aid Program Final Report” (July 2021) at page 8.

[8] Ibid, at page 18.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid, at page 15.

[11] Ibid, at page 15.

[12] Department of Justice Canada, Report, “Legal Aid in Canada 2019-2020” (2021) at page 34.

[13] Terry Davidson, “Legal Aid Manitoba Encouraged by Response to Weekend Phone-In Bail Court” (23 December 2019), online:

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Department of Justice Canada, Report, “Legal Aid in Canada 2019-2020” (2021) at page 35.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Department of Justice Canada, Report, “Evaluation of the Legal Aid Program Final Report” (July 2021) at page 38.

The views and opinions expressed in the blogs are the views of their authors, and do not represent the views of the Faculty of Law, or the University of Manitoba. Academic Members of the University of Manitoba are entitled to academic freedom in the context of a respectful working and learning environment.

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