A group of independent experts recommends radical reforms to the Quebec administration of the legal aid system in order to simplify the legal aid application process and reduce the administrative burdens faced by lawyers in the private sector who assume responsibilities. legal aid mandates.
The experts, while supporting Quebec’s decentralized legal aid model because it ensures the independence of staff lawyers and “respects” regional diversity, nevertheless ask for a change of “paradigm” that would be anchored by the implementation a secure digital platform to help establish a one-stop-shop province-wide to receive, process and manage legal aid applications.
“The task force finds that the system is cumbersome, rigid and leads to delays,” said the five-member independent group led by former Chief Justice of the Court of Quebec Elizabeth Corte. “It is obvious to the members of the task force, as well as to those who were consulted, that the legal aid system is sorely lacking in technological means to manage legal aid applications, their processing and their follow-up. This is unacceptable in a post-pandemic, almost digital society, at a time when the project to modernize justice is being touted. “
The independent group was created following an agreement reached between the Barreau du Québec and the government of Quebec in October 2020. The agreement, reached after three years of negotiations, provides for a retroactive increase of 5% in fees. legal aid for the period October 2017. to May 2019 and a 14.7% increase in fees from June 2019 to September 2022. But the backbone of the agreement was the creation of a panel of experts that would review and would make recommendations for a major reform of the legal aid system and the fees paid to private sector lawyers who work on legal aid cases.
Catherine Claveau, the new Bâtonnière of the Barreau du Québec
After consulting 28 legal stakeholders, the interim report issued 43 recommendations, all of which were favorably received by the Quebec legal community, which now hopes that the provincial government and the Commission des services juridiques (CSJ), the provincial body that oversees the legal aid system, will implement them quickly. “We are pleased that the independent committee has brought to the fore the multitude of irritants identified by the stakeholders,” said Catherine Claveau, the new Bâtonnière of the Barreau du Québec. “We hope that the recommendations will not be put aside but will be the subject of a real change in the current structure” of the legal aid system.
Quebec’s legal aid system is grappling with many problems, the report points out, echoing many of the findings of a report by the Young Bar of Montreal released earlier this year. The decentralized legal aid regime – made up of 11 regional legal aid centers and comprising 86 permanent legal aid offices and 18 temporary offices – has led to “some inconsistencies, even contradictions”, mainly in the processing of requests and in decisions rendered by legal aid offices. , according to the task force.
The problems start right off the bat, with private lawyers often paying the price, according to the report. It is difficult, the report points out, for individuals to seek legal aid. The list of documents currently required to prove eligibility is “exhaustive”, a prerequisite that many people cannot meet, which in turn results in a large number of potentially eligible litigants missing. However, when legal aid applications are incomplete, it is very often incumbent on the private sector lawyers who take on legal aid mandates to devote “time and energy” to ensuring that their clients benefit from the legal aid. legal aid, notes the report. It is equally difficult to obtain information on the status of the legal aid application, an exercise which, again, too often falls to lawyers in the private sector. In urgent cases, lawyers in the private sector often take on cases, not knowing whether or not they will be covered by legal aid due to endemic delays in making a decision on a legal aid application.
“The issues that we have been raising for a long time have been validated by the independent committee,” noted Michel LeBrun, Trois-Rivières criminal lawyer at Lacoursière LeBrun Avocats and responsible for the Association of Defense Lawyers of Quebec. “There is a little chronic lag in seeing that the legal aid system has not kept pace with the technology. The processes should be simpler and much more efficient. As it is, everyone is a loser.
The consequences are dire. Fewer and fewer lawyers in Quebec private practice are dealing with legal aid cases. In fiscal year 2019-2020, $ 50.6 million in legal aid fees and nearly $ 11 million in legal fees were distributed to 2,165 lawyers in private practice and 86 notaries in the private sector, according to the annual report of the CSJ. But the number of private sector lawyers who accepted legal aid warrants fell 9.1% in fiscal year 2019-20 from the previous year, with criminal and penal cases declining by 11. , 3% and civil cases 6.5%. About 20 years ago, about 14% of lawyers accepted a legal aid case, compared to about 8% today.
Alexandra Paquette, criminal lawyer and vice-president of the Young Bar of Montreal
Some of the problems plaguing the legal aid system, particularly those related to documentation, could be resolved if the CSJ established links with numerous ministries, organizations and institutions to facilitate the exchange of information, according to the report, a recommendation that was well received by the judicial authorities. stakeholders. “This is a very important recommendation that would help private sector lawyers and their clients,” said Alexandra Paquette, criminal lawyer and vice-president of the Young Bar of Montreal. “But there would need to be a system in place that would restrict the scope of the information exchanged. I believe that if this recommendation were implemented, security measures would also be implemented to ensure confidentiality. “
The task force believes that the key to solving many of the legal aid problems is technology such as electronic signatures, video conferencing, and especially a secure digital platform. Just as detainees seeking legal aid can use video conferencing, all applicants should do so as well, depending on the situation, according to the report. Currently, legal aid applications must be signed in the presence of a lawyer or legal aid employee, a procedure the task force questions, given that electronic signatures could be used.
Investing in and implementing a secure digital platform is essential, which the CSJ said it is doing. As envisioned by the working group, the digital platform could be used to complete legal aid applications online, using so-called smart applications. It could also be used to manage and treat them, much more efficiently than is currently the case. And such a platform, according to the report, could lead to an integrated, province-wide service that would benefit all legal stakeholders.
“We should be able to have something that fits today’s realities, that works, that uses digitization and instant communication,” said LeBrun.
The task force is expected to issue a second report in April 2022 that will make recommendations on the thorny issue of special considerations or additional compensation for long and complex mandates – a report eagerly awaited by all legal players.
Élizabeth Ménard, criminal lawyer and head of the Montreal Defense Lawyers Association
“The key for us is to get paid for the work we do,” said Élizabeth Ménard, Montreal criminal lawyer and head of the Montreal Defense Lawyers Association (AADM). “We are really excited to see what the second report has to say about the fee schedule. The report addresses some of the issues relating to special considerations without offering recommendations. We hoped that they would find an intermediate solution regarding fees in special cases.
The president of the Barreau du Québec also hopes that the task force will formulate concrete recommendations that will address specific considerations. “I hope that the authors of the report find an intermediate solution that will ensure that the lawyers who accept these complex mandates do not lose their shirts,” Claveau said. “If we could have a solution that would satisfy our members in terms of legal fees, I would be very happy. I have a lot of hope because this is a committee that is representative of the legal community and they were very open to hearing the concerns of stakeholders to help us make a difference.
The CSJ declined to comment.