B.C.’s atrophying legal aid system sinking into dementia

Duty counsel in British Columbia will take collective job action against the B.C. government starting in January and completely withdraw services after April from a system described by B.C. Trial Lawyers Association’s legal aid committee co-chairman Phil Rankin as suffering from “atrophication that has been happening slowly like dementia” from continuous funding cuts.

B.C. blue ribbon rallyRankin, one of three speakers in Wednesday’s BCTLA-organized rally outside the Provincial Court building in Vancouver said many defence lawyers who represent individuals in legal aid cases were often “lone wolves” and difficult to organize. But, the fact so many had come forward to organize and attend the rally or were wearing the blue ribbon on their gowns was an indication of the growing frustration lawyers felt with the system.

The rally, which drew 100 lawyers in afternoon sunshine, was one of four held in B.C. with the others in Victoria, Kamloops, and Penticton.

“We are off on a journey and we don’t know where it will go but doing nothing has not worked,” Rankin told the crowds. Beginning in January, duty counsel will withdraw services for a week, escalating to two weeks in February, three in March, and four in April. After that complete services will be withdrawn. Similar actions have occurred in Ontario and Quebec.

Rankin said the intent was not to “jam the system” but to restore the funding that was intended from the seven-per-cent surcharge placed on legal bills to fund legal aid in the province. All those have not been directed to legal aid since the surcharge was placed in 1992, he claimed.

“The government has collected billions and returned only a few million,” he said. He estimated only 25 to 50 per cent of these collected funds went back to legal aid.

The impact of these cuts have been felt throughout the court system, he said as low-income individuals cannot get representation, are forced to self-represent, delay proceedings, and often rely upon the judge to explain the court system and law.

“Thousands of hours of judges’ time has been wasted explaining to people what the process is,” said Rankin, whose father Harry was instrumental in starting a legal aid system in B.C. 20 years ago.

“It was a fair better system then, than what we currently have, “ he said.

Stephanie Vyas, a trial lawyer and rally organizer, said cuts that started in the 2000-2005 period slashed 40 per cent of the budget with 45 Legal Services Society offices reduced to seven regional offices.

“Poverty law and family law cases were almost totally eliminated,” she said.

From 2005 to 2010, five of the seven LSS offices were eliminated with only criminal cases handled.

“Last year, Leonard Doust [in his report on legal aid in B.C.]  said B.C. seriously lags behind other provincial systems,” she told the crowd. She said Doust’s report claims that legal aid is an essential service and that today’s system was “failing the most disadvantaged in the community.”

Samiran Lakshman, president of the B.C. Crown Counsel Association, said the lack of funding undermined the judicial system which was based on equal representation from both sides. When individuals can not get representation, it “makes a mockery of the system”.

“Defense and Crown lawyers stand together to ask that funding be restored,” he said.

The speakers drew applause from colleagues and other special interest groups attending the rally. Lawyer Lawrence Myers attending the rally said: “It is not about lawyers and their fees. It is about those often disenfranchised groups in B.C. — women, children, the poor, and the mentally ill.”

At the same time, he said, having proper representation for these individuals ensure that the court systems not only deal fairly but efficiently with cases.

Rankin, speaking to Legal Feeds, said the lack of legal aid funding is also affecting the supply of criminal lawyers, as law firms cannot afford to have articling students.

“There are few slots [for articling students] and the fees are low. In some criminal law firms, as much as 80 per cent can be legal aid. If you can’t afford to pay someone, then how can you mentor and produce criminal lawyers,” he said.

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