Lawyers have a 'high burnout rate which ultimately affects their clients.'
Legal aid cash-starved, suffering: Peterson
Nunavut's legal aid system is buckling under a heavy case-load and needs more money to hire and retain more lawyers, says Cambridge Bay MLA Keith Peterson.
"I am aware that our legal aid lawyers are stretched thin and cannot possibly deal on a timely basis with the myriad of cases that are assigned to them weekly," Peterson, a former chair of the Kitikmeot Law Centre, told the legislature Sept. 17.
"I have seen the territorial circuit court docket reports and am amazed by the number of cases that legal aid lawyers must deal with to help their clients."
An example, Peterson said, is the backlog of between 300 and 500 child custody cases currently working their way through the system. He estimates it could take up to three years for all those cases to be heard.
Combine that with low salaries and a lack of subsidized housing and Nunavut's legal aid lawyers are suffering from "a high burnout rate, which ultimately affects their clients," Peterson said.
Paul Nettleton, the new executive director of the Nunavut Legal Services board, can't say exactly how many lawyers Nunavut needs or where they are needed.
But two of the seven staff lawyers at Maliiganik Tukisiiniakvik in Iqaluit are about to leave for the South. No one from the Kitikmeot Law Centre in Cambridge Bay was willing to comment for this story.
But Nettleton said he and the directors of Nunavut's three legal aid clinics are headed to Toronto next week to "conclude" negotiations with eight new recruits whom he hopes will come to work in the system soon.
Among them will be criminal defence lawyers, family lawyers, and a poverty lawyer. Nettleton himself was Nunavut's poverty lawyer for two years until he moved to Gjoa Haven two weeks ago to head the legal services board.
In hiring new lawyers, Nettleton said it's important to recruit people who want to come to Nunavut because they're interested in helping the territory and its people.
"Legal aid lawyers tend, I would say, to be less focused on salary and benefits and more… ideologically driven," he said. "That's not to say they shouldn't be adequately compensated."
In May Maliiganik Tukisiiniakvik filed a submission to the legal services board asking for a 35 per cent increase in annual funding.
The clinic, which employs 10 lawyers and support workers when it's fully staffed, runs on a budget of $520,000 a year. That means the clinic can't provide benefits like housing assistance, pensions and parental leave that government employees take for granted.
Nunavut, which spends $5.2 million a year on the legal services board, has been pushing the federal government for more money. In the legislature Sept. 15, Paul Okalik, the justice minister, said he wants Ottawa to restore cost-sharing and "at least half" of legal services costs.
"That [money] will, of course, trickle down to the clinics and the staff lawyers," Nettleton said. He also hopes he'll be able to expand the number of lawyers and place them in more communities.
Another reason the caseload for legal aid lawyers is so heavy is that there are almost no lawyers in private practice in the territory, though a few people facing criminal trials do get lawyers from outside Nunavut, which the LSB ends up paying for.
"There simply is not a private bar. We need to grow that, we need to attract folks who want to live here and practice here, because there's certainly lots of work here," Nettleton said.
One partial solution is a second installment of the Akitsiraq law program, which Nettleton said is in the planning stages.
The original four-year program churned out 11 graduates, though only one, Qajaq Robinson, is still practicing law in the courtroom on a regular basis, and she's a Crown prosecutor.
But the legal services board will still have to recruit outside of the territory for the foreseeable future. Nettleton said one way to do that is to capitalize on growing southern interest in Nunavut and the Arctic.
That's what drew him here two years ago from British Columbia, where he'd worked as a legal aid lawyer and served as an MLA.
"My kids have never been happier," he said. "It's a great place to live and a great place to work."