Province lacks adequate legal aid services, says report

Nanaimo legal aid advocates are hopeful a new report indicating the system is failing to meet even the most basic needs of British Columbians will prompt improvements.

Nanaimo legal aid advocates are hopeful a new report indicating the system is failing to meet even the most basic needs of British Columbians will prompt improvements.

The legal aid system is suffering a lack of adequate, stable funding from the provincial and federal governments, the recently released report by the Public Commission on Legal Aid states.

The commission travelled to 11 communities, including Nanaimo, last fall to hear people’s experiences with legal aid and determine what the public wants from the system.

“Based on the evidence presented to me, I cannot come to any conclusion other than the services provided in British Columbia today are too little, their longevity or consistency too uncertain,” wrote commissioner Leonard Doust.

“This result is the consequences of the cutbacks and lack of sufficient and consistent financing, even though [the Legal Services Society] has done its very best, and in my view has done everything possible, to accommodate the needs within their limited budgetary restrictions.”

In 2002, the Legal Services Society’s budget was reduced by close to 40 per cent over a three-year period. As a result, 45 community legal aid offices were closed across the province – including one in Nanaimo – replaced with seven regional centres and service from local agents.

Poverty law services – help with legal issues such as welfare, income assistance, residential tenancy issues and debtors’ assistance – and family law services were eliminated.

Despite gains in recent years another round of cuts occurred in 2009 “on top of what was then an unsustainable and highly volatile legal system,” writes Doust.

Local gains included the addition of civil legal services at the Nanaimo Justice Access Centre in 2008, which were reduced in 2010 when the Legal Services Society withdrew its civil law advice service at the centre so it could meet increased demands in criminal, family, immigration and child protection matters.

His No. 1 recommendation is for the province to recognize legal aid as an essential public service in  legislation, just like health care, education and social assistance. Other recommendations include modernizing and expanding financial eligibility, reinstating coverage for many family and poverty law matters, establishing regional legal aid centres and increased, stable funding for legal aid.

Denice Barrie, the local agent for legal aid in Nanaimo and Duncan and manager of the community law office in Nanaimo before it closed in 2002, Doust’s point that legal aid should be considered an essential service hit the mark.

“Access to justice should not be an optional budget line,” said Barrie.

She still has people coming into her office expecting help with debt issues because they remember it being available previously. Others don’t get the help they need because they are not poor enough – but too poor to hire legal representation – or don’t fit into increasingly narrow categories, said Barrie.

Civil law issues such as debt problems often lead to a myriad of other legal problems, she added, such as marriage breakdown and child protection issues, costing the province more in the long run.

Barrie has worked with community volunteers to start a pilot project in Nanaimo, dubbed Street Legal, where volunteers provide information and support in areas of poverty law to low-income people.

Stephen McPhee, a Nanaimo lawyer and president of the B.C. branch of the Canadian Bar Association, said the report demonstrates, through references to research done by other countries, that early legal help saves money down the road in additional legal, health-care and other costs.

“The commission is not asking for a handout, but for an investment,” he said. “It’s very clear that if we’re not able to allow people access to their essential legal rights, we’re failing as a society.”

The bar association is organizing an access to justice symposium – to take place in Vancouver in the fall – to bring stakeholders together to talk and propose solutions that would improve access.

Gavin Hume, president of the Law Society of B.C., said improving access to legal services has also been a goal for his organization and it has looked at numerous ways to try to lower costs for the public. For example, the society amended its rules to make it easier for lawyers to offer limited services to clients, such as writing a statement of claim for a client but not attending court with them.

Hume said the society plans to meet with provincial and supreme court officials to ask that paralegals and articling students be permitted to represent people in all of the preliminary steps in court leading up to a trial to lower the cost. Currently the only people who can appear before the court on behalf of someone is a lawyer registered with the Law Society.

Hume said society members were thinking of the middle class when the idea first arose, because many working people cannot afford to pay for a lawyer to represent them all the way through a case, but the recent report prompted them to look at it from a legal aid perspective as well.

The most important thing the report does in the opinion of Nanaimo NDP MLA Leonard Krog, a lawyer and Opposition critic for the Attorney General, is remind people of the importance of legal assistance and the fact that the system is currently inadequate.

“It raises public awareness again,” he said.

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association also supports Doust’s report and recommendations. The Legal Services Society endorses the commission’s conclusion that the current scope and availability of legal aid in B.C. does not meet the needs of the public, but states that because the information people presented to the commissioner was taken “at face value”, some of it does not reflect the current state of legal aid in B.C.

For the LSS comments, please go to www.legalaid.bc.ca. To view the commission’s report, please go to www.publiccommission.org.

The public commission is funded by the Canadian Bar Association British Columbia Branch, the Law Society of British Columbia, the Law Foundation of British Columbia, the British Columbia Crown Counsel Association, the Vancouver Bar Association and the Victoria Bar Association.