Legal aid in Canada, 2012/2013

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By Manon Diane Dupuis and Mary Bess Kelly

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Access to justice in Canada is a priority of governments and policy-makers, legal professionals and the public. One aspect is access to legal services. Not all Canadians have the resources to pay for a lawyer. Legal aid plans have been established in all provinces and territories with the common goal of assisting lower-income Canadians who require legal services either for criminal or civil matters. This Juristat bulletin presents results from the Legal Aid Survey which collects information on the operation of Canada’s 13 legal aid plans.

In order to operate and provide legal services, legal aid plans receive funding from governments (both federal and provincial/territorial) as well as from client contributions, cost recoveries from legal settlements, and contributions from the legal profession and other sources.1

The federal government provides criminal legal aid funding to the provinces and criminal and civil legal aid funding to the territories.2  In 2012/2013, the federal government reported providing a total of $112 million to all provincial/territorial legal aid plans in Canada.

Provincial and territorial governments directly fund both criminal and civil legal aid. In 2012/2013, provincial and territorial governments reported contributing $658 million to legal aid plans across Canada.

Legal aid plans in Canada reported receiving funding of almost $835 million in 2012/2013 (Table 1). Government sources contributed the vast majority of this amount at 93% of the total.

The remaining 7% of funding was received from client contributions and cost recoveries from legal settlements, contributions of the legal profession and other sources.

A majority of jurisdictions spend more on criminal matters

Legal aid expenditures consist of direct costs for legal services such as legal representation, legal advice and provision of information for both criminal and civil cases, as well as other expenditures such as administrative costs.3

In 2012/2013, legal aid plans spent $813 million providing legal aid services (Table 1). Consistent with past results, most legal aid plans spent more on criminal matters than on civil matters. In 2012/2013, Quebec (46%), Prince Edward Island (47%) and Ontario (47%) allocated a smaller proportion of direct expenditures to criminal matters. In the other ten reporting jurisdictions, the proportion spent on criminal matters ranged from 55% for New Brunswick to 75% for Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

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Legal aid services

In Canada, legal aid services are provided through separate legal aid plans in each province and territory. The services provided by legal aid plans may include legal representation, advice, referrals, and information services. Generally, both criminal and civil cases are covered by all legal aid plans, although the extent of coverage varies among the provinces and territories.

The provinces and territories contribute to the costs of legal aid service delivery but the legal aid plans are responsible for determining eligibility for legal aid, the types of matters that will be covered, the delivery of services, and the operation of their respective plans.

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Close to 475,000 applications for full legal aid services were approved in 2012/2013

An applicant may be approved for either summary or full legal aid services. Summary services include the provision of legal advice, information, or any other type of minimal legal service granted to an individual during a formal interview. Full services constitute more extensive legal assistance. Applications not approved for full legal aid service may receive summary services instead. The Legal Aid Survey does not collect complete information on the total number of applicants who receive summary services. Applications may not be approved for full or summary services due to financial ineligibility, coverage restrictions, lack of merit or other reasons such as cancellation by the client.

About 725,000 applications for legal aid were submitted to legal aid plans across Canada in 2012/2013 (Table 1). Approximately 475,000 applications were approved for full legal aid services in 2012/2013. Civil matters accounted for over one-half (55%) of applications received while criminal matters accounted for over one-half (58%) of approved applications.

In 2012/2013, both the number of legal aid applications and the number of applications approved for full service declined from the previous year, 2% and 3% respectively.

Legal aid plans may use members of the private bar and/or staff lawyers to provide legal services to clients

In most jurisdictions the client has the right to choose counsel, either staff or private bar, from a panel of lawyers providing legal aid services. The proportion of services provided by private bar and staff lawyers varies by jurisdiction, and often by type of matter (criminal or civil).

Including all provinces and territories in Canada, just over 10,000 lawyers from both the private sector and legal aid plans provided legal aid assistance in 2012/2013 (Table 1). Private bar lawyers accounted for 85% of those providing legal aid services, while legal aid plan staff lawyers accounted for the remainder, 15%.

Further information

Data for 2012/2013, as well as historical data for the Legal Aid Survey, are available on CANSIM: Tables 258-0001 (Legal aid plan revenues), 258-0004 (Legal aid service delivery, by type of lawyer), 258-0005 (Federal government contributions to legal aid plans), 258-0006 (Provincial and territorial government contributions to legal aid plans), 258-0007 and 258-0008 (Legal aid plan expenditures), 258-0009 , 258-0010 and 258-0011 (Legal aid applications), 258-0012 (Legal aid plan personnel), 258-0013 (Duty counsel services), 258-0014 (Appeals), 258-0015 and 258-0016 (Dossiers processed under the interprovincial reciprocity agreement).

For more information on the Legal Aid Survey (definitions, data sources and methods), please refer to: Legal Aid Survey, survey number 3308.

Detailed data table

Table 1 Legal aid in Canada, 2012/2013


  1. Justice Canada provides the figures for federal contributions. Data on provincial/territorial government financial contributions are obtained from the appropriate departments responsible for justice matters. Information on total funding is provided by the legal aid plans.
  2. Prior to 1995/1996, the federal government contributed to the cost of civil legal aid with the provinces and territories under the Canada Assistance Plan (CAP), administered by the then Department of Health and Welfare. On April 1, 1996, the CAP was replaced by the Canada Health and Social Transfer (CHST) (now the Canada Social Transfer (CST)), a federal transfer provided to each province and territory to support provincial health care, post-secondary education, social assistance and social services. Provinces and territories are responsible for the delivery of civil legal aid services and therefore federal funding for civil legal aid through the CST provides provincial and territorial governments with the flexibility to invest CST funds according to the needs and priorities of their residents.
  3. Expenditures in a given year do not necessarily match funding for that year since legal aid plans may operate with the use of reserve funds, or may operate in surplus.
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