Reasonable Doubt: A call to arms on legal aid funding in B.C.
On Wednesday (November 30), lawyers are being called to the steps of courthouses across the province at 1 p.m. for the Rally in Ribbons and Robes, wearing a blue ribbon and clad in the robes that are designated only for wear in the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal. The purpose of this action is to bring awareness to the deplorable state of legal aid funding in British Columbia.
This is a topic that doesn’t garner a lot of sympathy from the general public. Many think that criminals shouldn’t get a free ride and that the money should be going elsewhere. The much maligned $6 million in legal aid coverage received by David Basi and Bobby Virk in the B.C. Rail corruption case has done much to negatively impact public perception of the legal aid system. In this article, I hope to provide some education as to what assistance legal aid actually provides and who the recipients of this much needed service are.
Legal aid is provided by the Legal Services Society (LSS) of British Columbia, which is a non-profit, non-governmental organization although its primary funder is the provincial government. In 2002, the B.C. Liberal government cut its legal aid funding by $30 million.
There are rules and regulations that determine who qualifies for legal aid (it depends on your finances and what your legal problem is). As per the LSS website, legal aid generally covers criminal charges, mental health and prison issues, serious family problems, child protection matters, and immigration problems.
According to the LSS’ Annual Service Plan Report for 2010/2011, “Legal aid clients are among the province’s most vulnerable and marginalized citizens. Our clients do not have the financial resources – or frequently the educational, social, or health resources – to effectively access the justice system when their families, freedom, or safety are at risk. Of the 27,900 clients who were referred to a lawyer in 2010/2011, over 69% have less than a high school education and over 26% are Aboriginal.” The Annual Service Plan Reports can be found online.
Legal aid funding is currently in crisis and has been for many years. Individuals who desperately need legal assistance aren’t receiving it. The majority of accused persons who receive funding are the most marginalized in society—they face a myriad of issues including mental health issues, substance abuse, poverty, and a lack of community support. Families who require legal assistance with divorce proceedings and child protection matters are being left to fend for themselves in a system that can be extremely technical and confusing. The legal system shuts down when these people are unrepresented due to a number of factors, including the extremely long waits for trial time. When there’s a lawyer involved, they know their client’s legal rights, they fight for their client’s best interests, they help move a matter along, and often times, settlements and appropriate plea deals are reached, freeing up the court list for matters that actually require a full trial.
It’s in everybody’s interest to fund legal aid in order for the neediest members of our society to have access to justice. And it’s not only criminals who need legal aid; most people would be surprised to learn that a great deal of court time is devoted not to criminal cases, but to civil and family matters. In B.C. last year, there were 48,591 civil cases and 13,088 family cases filed in B.C. Supreme Court. In provincial court, the wait for a half-day hearing over a small claims dispute is seven months. Your child could be in government care during the average five month wait time for your family matter to be heard. If your case will take more than one day, you’ll be waiting at least a year for trial.
It just makes social and economic sense to put more funding into legal aid.
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.