Lawyers rallied in front of Nanaimo Courthouse Wednesday to protest cuts and underfunding to B.C.’s legal aid system.
They joined their peers who staged similar rallies in Vancouver, Victoria, Kamloops and Penticton.
Lawyers across the province are threatening a form of escalating strike, starting in January when they will withdraw services for one week, followed by service withdrawals for the first two weeks of February, the first three weeks in March and for the entire month of April.
Nanaimo MLA Leonard Krog, NDP opposition critic for the Attorney General, said legal-aid funding between 2001 and 2011 was cut by 27 per cent from $96 million to $69.7 million.
But funding cuts to legal aid are just a symptom of a legal system in crisis.
“We have a significant lack of provincial court judges as well as prosecutorial services,” Krog said. “All these factors are making it harder and harder to deliver justice in B.C.”
From 2002 to 2005, the B.C. government cut the Legal Services Society budget by 40 per cent. What followed was the closing of 45 of the society’s branch offices, leaving seven regional offices to handle services provincewide.
Poverty law and most family law services were subsequently eliminated.
Society funding suffered further cuts in 2009, resulting in the closure of five regional offices, the elimination of the LawLINE and coverage for some criminal offences.
The government takes in about $100 million annually in through its provincial tax on legal fees, but the money is not directed toward legal aid, which the tax was created to fund in the first place.
Peter Hertzberg, Nanaimo criminal defence lawyer, said more is at stake than just funding for legal aid or fees paid to trial lawyers by the government to represent legal aid clients.
“It isn’t just funding for legal aid,” Hertzberg said. “It is the complete lack of commitment by the provincial government to adequately fund the justice system. The delay in trials is growing in every registry in the province.”
Hertzberg said governments have a constitutional obligation to provide access to justice and to fund legal aid.
“The courts have been commenting on how we’re getting perilously close to falling below constitutionally mandated funding,” he said.
Stephen Taylor, Nanaimo criminal defence lawyer, said legal aid for family law cases dealing with divorce and child custody issues, which are often confusing and traumatic for clients, also suffered.
“All these are very low points for the human experience and if we don’t provide at least the minimal amount of assistance to get these people through those times, then it’s just so obvious, it’s just going to cost much more in the long run.”
Krog said it is not simply an issue of pay for services, but lawyers standing up for the justice system.
“This isn’t about a bunch of greedy lawyers,” Krog said. “This is one aspect of the incredible problems across the justice system.”