The provincial government will spend $13.5 million to beef up the Legal Aid Commission and the Office of the High Sheriff, almost exactly one year after those two offices were hit by significant cuts.
© — Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram
In a Monday morning news conference at the Confederation Building media centre, Justice Minister Darin King (left) and Attorney General Felix Collins announce details of the recent Sheriff’s Office review conducted by retired RCMP police officer Insp. Leigh DesRoches and the external review of Legal Aid in the province conducted by lawyer John Roil. The province is spending an additional $7.1 million on the legal aid system over the next three years, with $2.1 million being funded through Budget 2014.
Justice Minister Darin King made the announcement Monday morning, saying he will implement all 29 recommendations in a pair of independent reports the government commissioned in the wake of last year’s budget outcry.
When it comes to the sheriff’s office, especially, Monday’s announcement was a stark change of course.
Last spring, nine sheriff’s officers got layoff notices, and people within the court system warned that it would seriously affect safety. The independent review conducted by retired RCMP inspector Leigh DesRoches said there was a significant shortage of officers, and recommended adding 20 additional workers throughout the province.
Similarly when it comes to legal aid, last spring it looked like as many as eight lawyers, but now the government is kicking in $7.1 million over three years to maintain 17 positions, and add new lawyers.
King said the cuts last year were made because of the fiscal reality facing the province. At the time, the government forecast a $563-million deficit, and then-finance minister Jerome Kennedy said cuts cross the board were necessary.
This year, according to the same forecast, the deficit will be even bigger. King couldn’t explain why money was such a factor last year, but now he’s got $13.5 million to fix all the problems.
When asked, he said, “That’s a good question for the finance minister.”
More broadly, though, he said that when the cuts happened in 2013, it was strictly because he was trying to save money. When the two consultants did their independent reviews, though, money wasn’t the primary concern.
“Tough decisions have to be made. Never did I say that the decisions that were made at that time were because they were in the best interest of the court,” King said. “They were financial decisions that had to be made, and we felt that we could move along, but you know, this is about listening to people.”
Opposition politicians were unimpressed.
For one thing, the government didn’t do the customary advanced briefing to let them know what was being announced, and Liberal justice critic Jim Bennett was clearly miffed.
“In an era of so-called open government, it would’ve been really helpful if I had the document or the briefing immediately before coming in here,” he said.
But on first blush, Bennett said the cuts really just fix the damage that was done last year.
NDP MHA Gerry Rogers was mostly upset that the government has reversed other cuts, but hasn’t backed down on the decision to kill the family violence intervention court.
Rogers has been the loudest voice of opposition about the court since it was shut down last year.
“I am really concerned, once again, that there is nothing to address the fact that they cut the family violence intervention court, which was such an important court for the people of the province,” she said. “The minister said that the cuts he made last year were not in the best interest of the justice system, but that he was dealing with a fiscal reality.”
The two reports weren’t totally negative towards the government, though. Both independent reviews found ways to improve the legal aid system and sheriff’s office through the use of better technology and better management structures.
And on legal aid especially, the report offered a strong defence of the quality services that are provided.
“Unfortunately, there are many misconceptions about the quality of service rendered to legal aid clients by the staff solicitors employed by the commission,” the report by retired lawyer John Roil said. “In the overall, they deliver a high-quality service, competently representing the commission’s clients on matters in which they have vast amounts of experience.”
The review recommended ways to combat the misconception that legal aid lawyers aren’t as good as attorneys in private practice.