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Winnipeg immigration law firm says it won’t take more legal aid cases until it gets fair compensation

Alastair Clarke, right, says the money his firm receives for immigration and refugee cases through legal aid isn't enough.  (Submitted by Alastair Clarke)

Alastair Clarke, right, says the money his firm receives for immigration and refugee cases through legal aid isn't enough. (Submitted by Alastair Clarke)

Photo: (Submitted by Alastair Clarke)

RCI

Legal Aid Manitoba says immigration tariff review will be done in a couple of months

The head of a Winnipeg-based immigration law firm says it won't take any more legal aid cases until it gets fair compensation for its work.

Clarke Immigration Law said in a blog post on its website the money it receives for immigration and refugees cases through the program — which pays lawyers fees when clients can't afford it — isn't enough. 

Legal Aid Manitoba's maximum fee for immigration-related aid is $1,315 per hearing. Lawyers can apply for an increase, but the firm's founder says it's never had one of its applications approved.

Alastair Clarke says that shows Legal Aid Manitoba's current model is not working.

The lawyers in Ontario for the same work are paid much more, lawyers in other provinces are paid much more. And it's just not sustainable, Clarke said. 

It's an extremely stressful practice.… We have to listen to the stories and we have to process the information and we have to advocate on behalf of people who have gone through extreme hardship.

Clarke said he would like the province match the tariffs paid by Ontario for refugee services. He says $3,500 per claim — what the firm charges for most refugee claims — would be fair.

Clarke said a lot of lawyers decide not to take legal aid because it doesn't pay the bills. 

He said many senior lawyers he's spoken to in Manitoba are making the same decision he did.

One of the reasons why we did not make this decision sooner [is] because if someone relies on legal aid and they have no family members in Canada, they have no supporters in Canada and they have absolutely no means of paying, he said.

Our current clients are not affected at all. We will continue to work on behalf of all of the legal aid certificates that we currently have in the firm.

Nalini Reddy, an immigration lawyer with Gindin Segal, says she would like to do more legal aid cases because she wants to help people, but only takes a small number because it's difficult to make a living out of it.

It is a lot of work, certainly, she said.

"I don't know if legal aid will ever be able to be at a rate that we would describe as fair compensation because it's state-funded.

So it's not going to rise to the levels that are commensurate with what we would normally charge.… What I think is realistic is to have legal aid rates be somewhere that is at least fairer compensation for immigration lawyers.

Review overdue, advocate says

Most of the money for Legal Aid Manitoba comes from the province, but the federal government pays the program directly for immigration services. Funding from the federal government for 2023/24 will be about $250,000.

Tariffs for criminal law and family matters last increased in late 2022, but those for immigration were left unchanged. The latter were last increased in 2021, when all tariffs went up 25 per cent across the board.

Legal Aid Manitoba says a review of the immigration tariff will be complete in roughly two months.

We are looking forward to the review currently underway on immigration tariff, provincial Justice Minister Matt Wiebe said in a statement.

But Louise Simbandumwe with the Immigration Matters in Canada Coalition says she's been waiting for those results for a while.

Simbandumwe, a former refugee, was set to start a letter campaign calling for a rate increase, but that was called off once Legal Aid Manitoba said it would address the matter.

It's been over a year. That's a long time to wait, she said. 

"It's a question of fair access to justice for people that are incredibly vulnerable, and as a former refugee, it's a matter of life and death for refugee claimants, for them to have the legal representation.

So you're dealing with situations were people can get returned to really grave human rights abuses.… People's lives are at stake.

Legal Aid Manitoba said it wants tariffs to reflect current practice and to ensure it's basing its decisions on sound research, which is making the review process more complex.

As of the end of November, 295 legal aid certificates had been issued for immigration matters this year.

Arturo Chang (new window) · CBC News ·

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