CBABC is championing access to justice
as an election issue in 2017
The news last year was dominated by national elections worldwide, some with surprising or disturbing results – Iceland with the growing strength of the Pirate Party, the Philippines with its assassin president, Uzbekistan with an electoral sham, and most recently in the USA. In BC, electioneering continues into 2017 as we move toward a provincial election on May 9th. For the CBABC, indeed for all in the legal profession, this is a time to press all political parties and candidates to support an invigorated justice system, with access by all. To this end, we have spent several months developing our Agenda for Justice, a platform of considered priorities to improve the law and the legal system. The details are set out in the article in this issue by VP Bill Veenstra, who led the work on it. We are asking all our members to familiarize themselves with it and to attend political debates and rallies of the political parties and to meet with local candidates to explain its importance to all in our society.
A main focus is a properly funded legal aid system. Too often justice issues are compartmented as affecting only a small part of our citizens, rather than all of us. That is not so. Communities cannot thrive unless their residents have speedy and affordable access to justice. We need investments in legal aid and court resources to ensure that all British Columbians have access to adequate representation, particularly when it comes to family and criminal law. Families are the basis of our society, and we cannot be a strong society without strong support – including legal support – to families. As lawyers we know those charged with crimes are still presumed innocent, and they – and we – need a system that resolves their cases correctly with a proper prosecution and defence, especially for our indigenous population so over-represented in jails and prisons.
We have the second lowest paying legal aid system in Canada. At $84 per hour for family and child protection cases, most lawyers simply cannot afford to act. Their overhead vastly exceeds that payment, meaning in reality they are the ones paying for legal aid, not government. Provinces such as Ontario and Newfoundland pay about $135 per hour, as does BC for lawyers acting for the government in child protection cases – more than 1½ times higher. We have a crisis in our child care system, again especially for our indigenous citizens, and we need to invest money so that families caught in it have help.
Access to justice also means access to courts. This requires an adequate complement of judges, sufficient court staff and sheriffs, and properly functioning courthouses for all our communities. At present, there is no required number of Provincial Court judges. The proper number needs to be determined and legislation setting a fixed complement passed.
An increasing number of small communities are without lawyers, as the established ones retire. High student debt means most newly-called lawyers have to look for work in firms in larger centres with an immediate income. They cannot take the time to build a practice in a small community without some immediate debt relief. We continue to press for student loan forgiveness programs like those available to medical professionals. Businesses and families in our communities need lawyers – whether for wills and estates, family issues, property or commercial matters – as much as they need teachers, doctors and other professionals.
We also advocate for reform of certain provincial legislation, including to provide proper wrongful death benefits, improve cyclist protection and update commercial tenancy law and for coordinated restorative justice initiatives. The justice system is an integral part of our social structure and strengthening it needs to be part of the conversation in this election.