Job action by B.C. legal aid lawyers — set to begin April 1 — has been averted as the B.C. government and the Legal Services Society have contributed funds to an interim agreement that puts $7.9 million into a tariff bonus system for legal aid lawyers over the next six months.
“The $7.9 million is a good faith payment,” said LSS CEO Mark Benton. “There will be many things to work out in the months ahead. LSS believes legal aid is not sustainable without a long-term framework for lawyer rates.”
The offer was made possible with a $4-million contribution from government and $3.9 million from LSS. The $7.9-million total will be used to increase payments to lawyers from April 28 to Oct. 31 and administered by the Law Foundation of B.C. Lawyers have only had one pay increase since 1991.
Benton expressed relief that lawyers would stay on the job. “We are relieved that the job action has been averted so that LSS can continue to serve people with low incomes whose unresolved legal matters can significantly impact their lives,” he said.
The interim agreement has been applauded throughout the legal community, which was bracing for a gradual shutdown of legal aid services which would had caused a major disruption to providing legal services to clients in and out of custody, courts and court services throughout B.C. Approximately 600 Association of Legal Aid Lawyers of B.C. members had announced they would be refusing new clients and services to out-of-custody clients beginning April 1. By April 15, they would start withdrawing from trial dates set and, by May 1, there would be no in-custody representation.
"It is a good day for legal aid and for legal aid lawyers," says ALL spokesman Richard Fowler, as the extra funding equates to approximately a 25-per-cent bonus in the rates paid legal aid lawyers.
It is not an increase in the tariff rate, says Fowler, as negotiations continue on that front, but in return for the agreement, ALL members will refrain from any job action during the interim six-month period of negotiations and not consider further job actions until Nov. 18.
"It is more than just about tariffs," said Fowler, as consideration needs to be given to criteria such as eligibility for legal aid as well as the areas of legal aid funds and where expanded coverage is needed in family, immigration and poverty law as well as child apprehension.
Fowler, who credited government for working toward a solution to prevent a withdrawal of services by lawyers, says he views this interim agreement as a beginning "to a proposal that can be submitted to the treasury board and into the government's annual budget cycle."
Following an interim agreement made only days before the provincewide shutdown started, B.C. Attorney General David Eby issued a statement. “We recognize there is work to be done to improve the legal aid system both for British Columbians and the counsel that represent them in court,” said Eby. “Legal aid lawyers provide services to some of the most vulnerable members of the province, and we will continue to work with LSS to address the historical underfunding of legal aid.”
The Canadian Bar Association’s B.C. branch welcomed the announcement of the interim agreement and extra funding support for legal aid lawyers.
“CBABC is very pleased that the B.C. government has reached an agreement with ALL to provide short-term funding to increase payments to legal aid lawyers,” said CBABC president Margaret Mereigh.
“Long-term sustainable funding is needed. We look forward to hearing the government’s plan for a funding model that will address the ongoing issues of eligibility, scope of coverage and tariff within B.C.’s legal aid system,” Mereigh said.
The CBABC has been advocating for the improvement of legal aid services. Calls for action in this area include improved funding of legal aid for family law services, redirecting the PST collected on legal advice into legal aid coverage and a modernized tariff used to compensate lawyers for performing legal aid work.
The Law Society of B.C. also applauded the interim agreement. “With today’s announcement, Attorney General David Eby, QC, acknowledged the importance to vulnerable British Columbians of lawyers who provide legal aid services and that legal aid has been historically underfunded,” said LSBC president Nancy Merrill.
“This is a significant shift by the provincial government and reflects what the law society has been advocating in A Vision for Publicly Funded Legal Aid in British Columbia. It should help all parties reach a constructive, sustainable solution for addressing the legal needs of poor and working poor British Columbians," she said.