More refugees need more legal aid — but will cost-sharing continue?

More refugees need more legal aid — but will cost-sharing continue?

Premier Brian Pallister has sent a letter to Justin Trudeau calling for more resources as Manitoba Legal Aid feels pressure from the surge in refugee claimants.

In the letter obtained by CBC News dated Feb. 21, the premier wrote that the rising number of refugee claimants entering Manitoba is having a significant impact in a number of areas — in particular, on the caseloads of Legal Aid Manitoba, which provides legal assistance from the initiation of the refugee claim to the completion of the process.

In the letter, Pallister asked for an extension of a cost-sharing agreement between the province and Ottawa for legal aid services which is set to expire on March 31.

Twenty-one asylum seekers crossed into Manitoba on Thursday night, bringing the provincial total to about 190 since the start of the year.  

While not every asylum seeker pursues legal aid in the province or at all, Legal Aid Manitoba has seen a significant increase. From April 2016 to Feb. 28, it has issued coverage for 228 cases, up from 163 cases the previous year, said Robin Dwarka, director of finance and labour management at Legal Aid Manitoba.

"That's a 36 per cent increase," Dwarka said.

"What we know is the majority of the asylum seekers have started coming in since late November, so that percentage will obviously increase by the end of the year and then again next fiscal year."

6 provinces offer aid — Sask. doesn't

The Legal Aid Program is a cost-shared program which provides funding to the provinces for legal aid services for people who couldn't otherwise afford. The funding is for criminal legal aid and court-ordered counsel in federal prosecutions.

In six provinces — British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, and Newfoundland and Labrador — it also helps to cover immigration and refugee legal aid. One reason Saskatchewan is not experiencing a similar surge in asylum seekers could be because it does not offer legal aid to refugee claimants.

To get the funding, Legal Aid Manitoba submits a claim to the Federal-Provincial-Territorial Permanent Working Group on Legal Aid.

That money is distributed to the Province of Manitoba, which then decides how much Legal Aid Manitoba will get overall.

 A Department of Justice spokesperson said that total federal funding for immigration and refugee legal aid is currently $11.5 million annually. The federal government contributed $151,897 to refugee claimants in Manitoba for the 2016-17 fiscal year.

"Legal Aid has already advised the federal legal aid program that there has been an increase in legal aid services," Dwarka said.

Similar programs have been in place for decades but the Legal Aid Program has been used for the last five, Dwarka said. Although the agreement ends on March 31, Dwarka said she expects it will be extended until a new one can be put in place.

But since there is no certainty, she said it's important Pallister pointed to the increasing need in his letter to the prime minister.

"If we've issued [payment] certificates on the presumption that funding will be there, it would be quite difficult for not only Manitoba but every jurisdiction if the funding was cut off on April 1," she said.

The federal spokesperson said the future of the program will be decided in the next budget. 

'1 refugee claim per lifetime'

Immigration lawyers are also feeling the pressure of high demand and limited resources in Manitoba, said Alastair Clarke, an immigration lawyer in Winnipeg.

"I can say that within my practice we have received a huge increase in the number of claimants," he said.

There are only a small group of lawyers who handle refugee claims in the provinces because many lawyers don't accept legal aid certificates and some immigration lawyers don't manage refugee matters, Clarke said. Those who do refugee claims are facing serious challenges.

"When there is such an increase in the numbers we need to make sure, within our individual practices, we are able to give the proper attention to each case. It's a challenge, it's a daily challenge," he said.

The stakes are high for refugees making a claim and having access to legal advice is crucial, Clarke said. Lawyers work with clients to organize and attain paperwork as well as prepare for the interview in front of the tribunal.

"A refugee is only able to make one refugee claim per lifetime," Clarke said.

"So the refugee claimants who are appearing before the tribunal on these claims it's the first time appearing before the tribunal and it will be, in almost every case there are a few exceptions, the only time they are appearing before the tribunal."

Having a representative to be able to guide them through the process and prepare them for the process "is essential in order for these individuals to have a fair hearing," Clarke said.

Under a current agreement with the United States, Canada generally does not allow refugee claims from within the U.S., designating that country a "safe third country."

However, Canada is also a signatory to the United Nation's 1951 Convention on Refugees, which protects a migrant from prosecution for illegally crossing an international border to make a refugee claim.

Once inside the country, a migrant has the right to make a refugee claim in Canada, provided they pass security checks.

- Full coverage: Refugees at the Canada-U.S. border

'Fully overtaxed'

In the letter to the prime minister, Pallister also pointed to other resources being "severely strained."

"Ongoing capacity is becoming extremely limited and is well on the way to becoming fully overtaxed," Pallister wrote.

On Friday, Pallister told reporters that Manitoba has been disproportionately affected by border-crossings and there needs to be a national plan to address it.

"This may be a case where the federal government doesn't see it as a national concern because it is largely three or four provinces that are being hit and it seems like a small problem, I suppose, on a national scale," he said.

"But disproportionately Manitoba is being asked to carry the burden and that is, per capita, the largest obligation of any province."

The Liberal cabinet minister responsible for Manitoba, Jim Carr, along with Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale are going to Emerson, Man., on Saturday to observe what is happening on the ground.