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British Columbia legal aid funding questioned

The B.C. branch of the Canadian Bar Association wants the provincial government to better fund the province’s legal aid services.

The B.C. branch of the Canadian Bar Association wants the provincial government to better fund the province’s legal aid services.

Sharon Matthews, president of the B.C branch of the CBA, is taking that message province wide with the hope of encouraging the public to actively support the provision of legal aid services.

Matthews’ tour follows recommendations made by the Public Commission on Legal Aid in March that suggested the government recognize legal aid as an essential public service; modernize and expand financial eligibility; establish regional legal aid centres; increase long-term, stable funding; and provide more support to legal aid providers.

In 2002 cuts were made to the service shortly after the Liberals took office. The initial cuts affected both the mandate of the service and the funding that flowed to it. At that time, Matthews says, the province’s share of funding dropped from just under $90 million to $60 million.

Cariboo-Chilcotin MLA Donna Barnett says the government contributed $66.5 million this year.

Matthews says the provincial funding portion of legal aid is now approximately $69 million but it’s estimated that an additional $50 million is necessary to bring service levels back to where they were in 2002.

The commission’s work followed a decade where organizations representing lawyers in the province attempted to fill the gaps by offering pro bono services, or free legal services, and provided funding through interest collected from lawyers trust accounts, says Matthews.

However, the stop gap measures didn’t prevent poverty and employment law from losing funding support; there were also cuts to family law, where legal representation has been restricted to cases where there is an immediate threat of violence, and to some criminal law services, explains Matthews. An income test is required to be eligible for legal aid in criminal matters; individuals must also face the possibility of incarceration to secure aid. Matthews says no one above the poverty line gets legal aid.

In the cases where legal representation is not available information is provided to guide individuals through the process. However, without legal representation individuals who may already be marginalized can find it difficult to navigate the system, says Matthews, adding those who are affected are frequently women and children, individuals with mental illness, and senior citizens.

Matthews estimates that when poverty law services were cut there were 45,000 people  dumped from the system.

“We are talking about tens of thousands of people a year who would have been helped under the old system who are not being helped,” she says.

According to Barnett, approximately 28,000 individuals have received legal aid services in the province this year.

Matthews suggests individuals who aren’t getting legal help can find themselves homeless, on social assistance or in the mental-health system.  She quotes research from other Canadian jurisdictions that shows an investment of $1 in legal aid can result in up to $8 worth of savings in other areas of government spending.

That’s one reason to fund legal aid, she says; the other is the strain under funding places on court services.

“There are limited judicial resources and when cases take up more time than they would otherwise everything slows down,” she says.

“In provincial court, which hears the most family and criminal law matters, currently 90 per cent of family law cases involve a person who is representing themselves.”

When people are self represented cases are also more likely to proceed slowly, says Matthews.

That is further aggravated by a shortage of Crown counsel lawyers and judges — B.C. has 16 fewer provincial court judges than what’s considered a full complement by both the judiciary and the legal profession, according to Matthews.

Matthew’s association is aware of the financial state of the province.

She says the entire budget for both the attorney and solicitor general offices, which look after public safety and justice system issues in B.C., is less than the increase in the health-care budget last year.

That’s why the CBA is pushing to get the public involved in the hope that they will demand changes to legal aid service funding.

“We know in order for them (government) to go to bat for it we have to show them the public support. That’s what this is all about,” she says.

Barnett is hopeful that changes to the Family Act, currently being debated in the legislature, will assist in moving family matters outside of the court and bring speedier resolutions for individuals involved in those cases.

“We always need more money for everything but you can only do so much,” she says of the state of funding for legal aid.

“Hopefully when the new Family Act is passed it will be of assistance.”