Legal Aid expanding boundaries to help more people

Sueann Musick
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PICTOU – It is a familiar Monday morning ritual.

Legal Aid has adopted a new strategic plan that offers more services to people in need. Here, Pictou County Legal Aid lawyer Stephen Robertson and Doug Lloy, centre, are joined by former Nova Scotia Legal Aid executive director Gord Murray and current executive director Karen Hudson.

Sueann Musick – The News

At 9:30 a.m., lawyers and court staff take their positions in the provincial courthouse in Pictou while the rows of wooden benches behind them are filled with anxious people waiting for their names to be called.

At the front table, Stephen Robertson and Doug Lloy, QC, sit with stacks of files of clients who already accessed the services of Nova Scotia Legal Aid and familiar green forms for people who have come to court without a lawyer.

Throughout the morning, both men will rise from time to time with the green form in hand when they hear that someone is seeking legal advice but hasn’t taken the proper steps to access the services of legal aid.

Other times, Robertson and Lloy are stopped out in the court’s lobby by potential clients or ask the judge for time to speak to people who are being held in cells in the back of the courthouse.

Busy Monday mornings are one way for the legal aid lawyers to help people make their way through the complicated justice system, but it’s not the only way.

Nova Scotia Legal Aid has launched a strategic plan that focuses on helping people access justice.

“We are trying to do more to improve access to justice here in the county, said Lloy. “We have excellent working relationships with other co-professionals in the county such as the Bench and the Crown and we probably have the shortest dockets for criminal and family probably in the province.”

Such dynamics allow legal aid staff to take on new initiatives that include social justice cases, broadening its borders to give assistance to the working poor, offering free legal advice on a limited basis and working more with the local community.

Karen Hudson, QC, executive director of the Nova Scotia Legal Aid Commission, said in the 1970s, legal aid would offer assistance in social justice issues, but later narrowed its focus to criminal and family law.

It is now returning to its roots by offering full service in areas of Canadian Pension Plan applications, social assistance claims, Employment Insurance appeals as well as landlord and tenant disputes and housing grants.

Hudson said some of the best advice people can get on these subjects comes from Lloy and Robertson.

Lloy has written two books on the Canada Pension Plan, one of which was released in 2003 and a new edition will be released next year.

Robertson manages the Pictou County legal aid office and carries a full caseload, but has taken Employment Insurance matters to the board of referees where appeals are reviewed.

“Stephen has assisted people in not only giving summary advice but also represented them through this very specific area,” said Hudson.

She said giving people proper representation in social justice is important because these issues affect their income and livelihood.

“When people have insecurity in their income or housing, it only worsens their intersections with family justice system and criminal justice system,” Hudson added.

Having a criminal record can also hurt a person’s ability to find work, so legal aid is also helping people apply for pardons.

“People have told us they find it increasingly harder now than before to apply and there is an increased cost to the application,” she said. “We don’t cover the cost, but we can help them find out how they can go about applying for a pardon. We know that applying for a pardon is important to people’s ability to secure income because almost any employer for any profession does a criminal records check.”

She added there are many stereotypes about legal aid that often discourage people from making that first contact with their qualified lawyers.

Many people believe they won’t qualify for legal aid services because they earn too much money, but Hudson said it is opening its services even wider to help the working poor.

“In the past, people would say you have to be on income assistance to get legal aid, but we know there is an increasing pool of people who are self represented, not by choice, but because they don't qualify for legal aid on one end and can’t afford to pay a lawyer on the other end. We know the effectiveness of outcomes for them is jeopardized when they don’t have a lawyer. People should know they should come in and apply to legal aid, even if they have been found not eligible in the past, because we are looking at doing more for the working poor.” 

Robertson said it might mean that someone will have to contribute something towards their legal services, but it will be based on what they can pay.

“There are people who have just started jobs, but to hire a lawyer would probably crush them,” he said. “What they pay can be negotiated.”

There are times when all people need is just a little direction through the justice system, so legal aid is also offering a half-hour to an hour of free legal advice in criminal, family or social justice laws.

“This is valuable when someone is faced with family law breakdown issues, criminal investigations and charges,” said Hudson.

The second major obstacle legal aid lawyers often hear is that they are not as professional or qualified as professional lawyers.

“We are the largest litigation firm in Nova Scotia and we attract so many applications for lawyers to work with us,” she said. “This is the only job I ever wanted, we are paid the same as the Crown and we have a great wealth of experience. We have expert lawyers and we recognized by colleges, judges and the private bar.”

In addition, the lawyers work with experienced support staff in the Pictou County office who care about the clients.

“In order to be a good legal aid lawyer, you need to be caring and organized,” Hudson said. “Organized, not in the sense that your desk looks great, but that you can juggle a lot of balls more than once. We will help and help them quickly.”

She said wait times for an intake appointment usually run between three and four weeks, which means people can get the advice in a short period of time.

Lloy said legal aid is the “front lines” of the justice system and in addition to its work in the courtroom or office, it is making a point of being part of its community.

As president of the Pictou County Bar, Lloy is always seeking out quality guest speakers that often draw people from across the province to the area while he has also approached the county’s three MLAs and MP Peter MacKay about legal aid’s new strategic plan so they can pass the information on to their constituents.

Presentations have also been made to local schools and organizations while special attention is being turned to aboriginal communities.

“We have seven aboriginal lawyers that deliver services in seven aboriginal communities across the province,” Hudson said. “If Pictou Landing is interested in having us do that service we would go into community every couple of weeks to do intake appointments and see existing clients.”

Anyone wanting more information any of the services offered by Nova Scotia Legal Aid can visit its website at www.nslegal.ca. 

Organizations: Nova Scotia Legal Aid Commission, Employment Insurance, Pictou County Bar

Geographic location: Pictou County, Nova Scotia

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  • A Maclean
    July 16, 2014 - 10:27

    That's great news. It would be nice if they could assist those needing assistance with divorce for those who are within the guidelines.