B.C. lawyers plan one-month “blackout” in protest of legal aid funding

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Criminal defence lawyers across B.C. are being asked to withdraw their services from legal aid for a month in protest of decreasing funding levels for free legal programs serving low income people.

From July 5 to August 8, the Trial Lawyers Association of British Columbia’s Legal Aid Action Committee has called for a “blackout” of all services funded by the Legal Services Society, in hopes of getting the provincial government to boost the organization’s budget.

Lawyers in Vancouver, Victoria, and Kamloops have committed to participating in the “collective action”.

“The purpose of the concerted withholding of our work is to convince the provincial government to restore funding to Legal Services fully and reliably,” states a bulletin sent to lawyers. “Over the past 23 years, Legal Aid funding in BC has decreased by over 60%.”

According to the bulletin, the “chronic funding shortage” has resulted in 40 percent of defendants representing themselves in provincial criminal courts, with even more people going it alone in small claims and family courts.

The bulletin urges lawyers to refuse to work as duty counsel in provincial criminal courts, to schedule new trials, to accept new legal aid referrals, and to schedule guilty pleas, bail hearings, and interim appearances during the blackout.

“If it is necessary to appear in court with a former (and future) client, only do so in an effort to adjourn the matter beyond the blackout period,” the bulletin advises.

In a June 11 FAQ posted on its website, the Legal Services Society notes it has “stated repeatedly that more funding is required to meet the legal aid needs of low-income people in BC”.

The society says it will follow standard procedures for making legal aid referrals in July.

According to the FAQ, “if no local counsel are available, LSS will offer the referral to lawyers outside the community. Due to funding limitations, LSS will not be able to offer out-of-town counsel travel fees.”

The FAQ continues: “if LSS is unable to place the referrals, the client will be asked to have the matter put over to August.”

The blackout follows two years of protests by criminal lawyers calling attention to the issue of legal aid funding.

Starting in October, weeklong blackouts are slated to take place every month.

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