10/30/2014 04:39 EDT | Updated 12/30/2014 05:59 EST

Additional $5.5M for legal aid in Alberta a good first step: lawyers

CALGARY - The Alberta government is increasing funding for legal aid and making it easier for low-income earners to qualify.

Alberta Justice Minister Jonathan Denis announced Thursday the government would provide an additional $5.5 million this year to help legal aid offset its costs.

"Promoting access to justice is an essential part of assuring all Albertans can participate fairly in the justice system because every Albertan has this right," Denis said at a news conference Thursday.

Last summer, Legal Aid Alberta closed six regional offices and laid off staff in Calgary, Whitecourt and Lethbridge. Lawyers threatened job action to try to pressure the government to provide an additional $8 million a year.

Denis took a request for more legal aid funding to a meeting of federal and provincial justice ministers in Banff earlier this month, but was told by federal Justice Minister Peter MacKay that no extra money was available.

Ottawa used to split the cost of the program 50-50, but now only chips in about 16 per cent. Since 2003, there has been no new federal funding to the program.

"To minister MacKay's credit he did indicate that he was willing to keep a dialogue going, however talk is cheap and legal aid needs services now. I would be much happier if the federal government would step up to the table but if they don't, we will and we have," he said.

Denis said the monthly income threshold to qualify for legal aid is being increased by $240 a month — that means all recipients of Alberta's Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH) will be eligible.

He says he hopes extra money will be available in future budgets as well.

The chairman of Legal Aid Alberta welcomed the extra funding.

"This is an extremely positive first step," said Derek Cranna.

"It allows us ... to provide coverage for those Albertans who are in the most vulnerable positions and fulfil what we believe is our mandate to assist as many Albertans as possible," he said.

"I don't think I can overemphasize the significance of today's contribution and the assurances that Mr. Denis and the premier have made."

Premier Jim Prentice said the money was made available to help provide disadvantaged Albertans with the support they deserve.

"Our system must be responsive to current demands on the program, most importantly by ensuring low-income Albertans, including AISH recipients, have access to the services they need," said Prentice in a news release.

Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley said the extra money is too little and too late.

"The New Democrats have been calling on the PCs to adequately fund legal aid for years. This $5.5 million is drop in the bucket of what is actually needed to ensure Albertans have fair access to justice," Notley said.

"It's not enough. Albertans who work a full-time job and make minimum wage are still making too much money to qualify for legal aid. They are being denied their fundamental right of access to justice because they can't afford representation."

Liberal justice critic Laurie Blakeman said the money was desperately needed, but is not nearly enough.

"The justice minister is only taking half measures to address the access to justice crisis in this province," she said.

"Half the money and half the solution. Others have to be polite and thankful, but I want to underline how short sighted and crisis oriented this whole episode has been."

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