Justice Department reviewing fees paid to lawyers who take on legal aid cases
Justice Minister Brad Johns says officials in his department are reviewing the fees paid to lawyers who take on legal aid work.
"We recognize that they're below the average, that they are low," Johns said in an interview at Province House in Halifax on Wednesday.
"They haven't been reviewed since 2014 so we're hoping to do that."
Private practice lawyers can enter into contracts with the province — called legal aid certificates — to take on a case for a client who could not otherwise afford it. Depending on the type of matter, they are provided with a certain number of preparation hours at an hourly rate based on their years of professional experience. There is additional funding to cover any trial time.
The issue of the fees and the challenge they present in getting lawyers to take on legal aid work was raised during a meeting of the legislature's public accounts committee on Wednesday.
Charlene Moore, CEO of Nova Scotia Legal Aid, told committee members the rates in Nova Scotia are "probably one of the lowest legal rates in the country" and can create barriers to people accessing justice.
Low fees, retirements
In an interview, Moore said that Legal Aid has faced growing challenges in the last five years finding private lawyers to take on this work. Along with low fees, many lawyers are retiring and not enough new lawyers want to do the work.
When the service is not able to match a client with a lawyer locally, Moore said Legal Aid has had to turn to lawyers in other parts of the province willing to travel.
"We do have, for example, lawyers from Halifax who will travel to Sydney to represent someone."
Moore said the issue of fees has been an ongoing conversation with the Justice Department. A report from Legal Aid several years ago flagged the need to improve the hourly rate and number of preparation hours provided to lawyers who take on their cases.
Recommendations to come
Johns said an internal working group has been established to examine fees and make recommendations. Part of the funding comes from the federal government and Johns the new federal budget appears to have more money for legal aid.
"And we do recognize [that] usually the solicitors that take on these cases are junior, just coming out of school and we know that they're relatively low paid. So we want to try to address that."
The minister said he's hoping to be able to make a change within the next year, "if not sooner."
"I know that that working group has been already on the ground ... so I'm just waiting to see what the recommendations come back from them."
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