Fighting Over Fees: How Legal Aid Works in Quebec

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My favorite lawyer joke is the one about the fellow in a bar who gets up and says:

“All lawyers are assholes!”

A guy at the back of the bar yells “hey!”

The first man asks him if he’s a lawyer.

“No, I’m an asshole,” the man replies.

Why do lawyers get a bum rap? Could it be their willingness to defend scum like Jian Ghomeshi?

It’s more likely due to their fees.

Lawyers’ fees vary depending on the services rendered, the time a case needs, work experience, and years since called to the Bar – the professional association for which membership is required in order to practice. While the websites of most lawyers in Montreal don’t post their rates, many of them offer free quotes. Most lawyers will charge upwards of a hundred bucks an hour. Luckily, there is a way around this and it’s called Legal Aid.

Quebec’s Legal Aid Program was established with the enactment of An Act Respecting Legal Aid and the Provision of Certain Legal Services in the early 70s. Its guiding principles include official recognition of the importance of providing legal services to people in need and the need for efficient management of said services.

The legal aid program provides access to lawyers for people who don’t have the money to pay outrageous fees. With the program the Act also created the Commission des services juridiques, the government organization charged with administering it. Depending on your income you can get the help of an attorney in Quebec for free or for a fraction of their normal fees. But there are other limits besides income.

Legal aid only covers cases the law considers essential including defense in the face of criminal charges, extradition, family law issues like alimony and child support, consent to or refusal of medical care, and where the court exercises powers under the Youth Protection Act. The Act also has a list of cases where no legal aid can be granted. This list includes plaintiffs in defamation or libel cases, any case relating to elections, public consultations, or referendums, and legal actions claiming damages for breach of promise of marriage or civil union.

To get legal aid, you have to apply to the Commission which has to render a decision in the shortest possible time. The application has to include not only information relating to the case for which you need help, but you also have to disclose the details of your financial situation and provide any supporting documents. Failure to do so can result in a refusal of the application.

Eligibility for legal aid is determined according to income and the size of your family. Income is calculated by taking into account your annual salary, any unemployment insurance or CSST benefits, real estate you own, and any liquid assets like cash and investments. The income limits for free legal aid are changed every few years and updated lists are available on the Commission des services juridiques’ website.

Those who exceed the income limit for free legal aid can still get it provided they pay a contribution. The maximum contribution someone eligible for legal aid can be made to pay is eight hundred dollars, but if the cost of services rendered is less than your required contribution you’ll only have to pay said cost plus the fifty dollar fee to open your file.

If you’re caught trying to cheat the system by quickly disposing of income or assets so you qualify for free legal aid, your legal aid can be refused or withdrawn and you might be made to repay the Commission with interest. Same goes if you don’t update the Commission about changes in your finances or family situation.

Lawyers in private practice in Quebec are not obliged to accept legal aid and when you look at how the Quebec government compensates them it’s easy to understand why.

The rules determining how lawyers who accept legal aid are compensated are listed in the Agreement between the Minister of Justice and the Barreau du Québec respecting the tariff of fees of advocates for legal services under paragraph 1.1 of 4.7 of the Act respecting legal aid and the provision of certain other legal services and the dispute settlement procedure and the Agreement between the Minister of Justice and the Barreau du Québec respecting the tariff of fees and expenses of advocates rendering services in criminal and penal matters and the dispute settlement procedure. The first agreement sets out the fees for services related to family and physical integrity law, the latter to services related to criminal and penal law.

For family law and physical integrity issues, the maximum lawyers can get from legal aid for services rendered is a flat fee of four hundred dollars. For penal and criminal law cases the fees a lawyer can get from legal aid vary given the complexity and duration of proceedings.

The rules for criminal cases introduce a concept called “work periods” which divide a day into 3 pieces. Instead of compensating a lawyer for work per hour, certain services will be compensated with a rate per work period. For example, services rendered during a facilitation conference in criminal and penal matters will be compensated at a rate of two hundred and seventy five dollars per work period making the maximum a lawyer can get per day for those services under legal aid eight hundred twenty five dollars.

When you compare it to what lawyers charge per hour it’s no wonder many of them won’t take legal aid. The ones who do are often working alone without a firm and established client base. They often take legal aid cases because they’re not well known enough to charge crazy fees and need the work.

Lawyers are expensive but it’s no sin to want wealth from a job that drains you both mentally and physically. On the other hand if all lawyers were greedy scum there would be none accepting legal aid cases.

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