Reasonable Doubt: Is B.C.'s justice system in crisis?
Last week, Nancy Seto told you about the crisis in legal aid. I think it is easy to agree that access to justice should be shared equally among all citizens. We can agree on this even if you believe, like commenter glen p robbins, that the legal aid scheme breeds corruption among lawyers and that lawyers should be supervised by an independent body.
The “crisis in legal aid” issue spawns a lot of conversations, but, at the heart of the matter, the problem of lack of funding for legal aid is not a conversation about lawyers and corruption. You can be indignant about corrupt lawyers and scream as much as you want about lawyers abusing the system, but it does not change the fact that a conversation about the pathetic state of legal aid in this province is a conversation that is completely and utterly about you.
Our chief justice of the Supreme Court of B.C., Robert Bauman, gave a speech at a conference recently about the state of the justice system. He describes our justice system as being close to a tipping point—nearly at the brink of collapse.
He also says:
Lawyers must educate and urge the community to recognize that courts are not just another line item in the budget - like education or hospitals.
That may sound sacrilegious - more important than education and health care? Yes - from this perspective while education and health care are essential public services, the judicial system, as a branch of government, is a foundational institution in our democracy.
The government is made up of three branches: the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary. The judiciary is the way we maintain law and order. If the judiciary collapses from underfunding, so does our democracy. (You can read Chief Justice Bauman’s speech here.)
My concern is that while the justice system is almost at the brink of collapse, it almost does not matter. It does not matter because right now most of the population cannot afford meaningful access to the justice system anyway.
At law school, I was told that the term “access to the justice” means actual, physical access to the courthouse. Nothing else. No right to any help navigating the obtuse and confusing procedures and laws that people can spend a lifetime studying and still not fully understand. I find this sickening. It means that you can either afford to protect yourself, your children, your property, or your interests at times when you are most vulnerable to huge power imbalances, or you can’t.
Most of us can’t. Most of us will be in a place at some point in our lives when we will be in a vulnerable position and our only remedy is the court system. I’m talking about family, immigration, civil, and/or criminal matters.
Legal aid used to be a way that in those most vulnerable of moments, we could be assured that the scales would be balanced. Most of us, however, could not qualify for legal aid today. If you have a job, chances are you do not qualify. If you have any assets or savings, you probably cannot qualify.
It hardly seems fair does it?
If as citizens we’re all equal, then it follows that we should all have meaningful access to justice, so that we can ensure that the law is applied fairly to everyone regardless of income or wealth. We should all able to have someone that is specially trained to navigate the law to guide us and ensure that the law is applied to us in the best way possible as we fight our battles to protect our rights, family, and property.
Unfortunately, that is just a dream. The reality is that our B.C. government continues to justify cuts to a legal aid system that barely supports our most marginalized people.
What are we going to do about it?
On November 30, criminal defence, family, and immigration lawyers kicked off the start to the “Restore Legal Aid Funding” campaign with a demonstration outside courthouses in Vancouver, Victoria, Kamloops, Nanaimo, and other towns. In the following months, lawyers will continue to increase their efforts to bring the attention of the B.C. government to this issue. You can read more about these efforts on the Trial Lawyers Association of B.C. website.
Reasonable Doubt appears on Straight.com on Fridays. The column’s writers, Laurel Dietz and Nancy Seto, are criminal defence lawyers at Cobb St. Pierre Lewis. You can send your questions for the column to them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A word of caution: Don’t take this column as personal legal advice, because it’s not. It is intended for general information and entertainment purposes only.