Nova Scotia is remote and it feels like it. I thought I would take the train to Halifax and back from Montreal. Each trip would take a day and a night: it was not realistic.
Interestingly, Halifax Station is vast and apparently remains ready to function as it once did when the port was the major point of entry to vast numbers of immigrants and other travellers. The facilities for processing New Canadians are now a museum: the town has the not unattractive feel of having passed its peak. It retains a real charm; the people are friendly; and the coastline spectacular. It is good tourist destination but how does it fare if you visit to explore its legal aid?
I had only a passing visit last summer - just long enough to explore the surface of Nova Scotia’s legal services provision and Halifax’s coffee shops (top recommendation - Steve O Reno’s - way, in my view above the rest).
For an English lawyer, there were three particular things to take away.
First, and no doubt aided by the closeness of the legal community, the province has an access to justice coordinating committee that follows the model in other Canadian provinces and some US states. It is chaired by the Chief Justice and its role is to ‘provide leadership to a cohesive and collaborative approach for access to justice initiatives in Nova Scotia’ (http://www.courts.ns.ca/News_of_Courts/news_docs/NSA2JCC_Terms_of_Reference.pdf). It brings together the main players in the province - among them. Nova Scotia Law Aid, the Minister of Justice (the co-chair) and leaders of the Bar. This is a model which we should follow: it is proving its worth in a number of Canadian jurisdictions.
Second, strapped for cash as it is, Legal Aid Nova Scotia makes considerable use of salaried lawyers, which it clearly finds an economic form of delivery. Of the near 20,000 cases in which it funded full service representation nigh on 16,000 were provided by staff lawyers. Its two largest areas of work are respectively family and crime. Under chief executive Karen Hudson, there has been an emphasis on seeking to provide some level of service more widely than previously. Thus, there is an enhanced duty counsel program and more emphasis on legal information. Some of the cost appears to have come from getting staff lawyers to take on more major criminal cases. There are, however, limits - as the 2014-15 annual report makes clear, ‘Staff complement will have to be increased. Present staff levels are at capacity. Staff have stepped up to the plate and have answered the call to “do more with less” but as the number of those we service increases, so must those who provide the service.’
The organisation can espouse a distinctively poetic style of discourse somewhat rare in most legal aid annual reports. How about this from the website homepage?
Legal Aid is the whetstone to the sword of Justice, ensuring that her strokes are measured, efficient and accurate when dealing with wrongdoing. Legal Aid also ensures that her scales are calibrated to take into account the rights and interests of the most vulnerable.
We have evolved from a time when one’s wellbeing and security depended on who had the ear of the King. Through the sacrifice of generations, we have become a society based on the rule of law. We are a society that holds sacred both the blood of those fallen in defence of our values and the ink of statesmen.
Our history teaches us that legal aid is not a charitable endeavour but a necessary enterprise if we are to preserve government based on the rule of law. Without legal aid, those outside the corridors of plenty will come to regard our system of justice, at best, as out of reach or not involving them. At worst, they will hold it in contempt and see it as an instrument of oppression.
To which, you can only really say ‘right on’.
Finally, the Province has an active Legal Information Society (http://www.legalinfo.org) dedicated to the public legal education function which Canadian jurisdictions tend to take seriously. This provides legal information on its website in the way that you would expect. It also runs a ‘public navigator’ program in which non-lawyers are trained to provide assistance to self-represented litigants and which is cautiously claimed by the society in its latest annual report as one which ‘appears to be the first of its kind in Canada’.