“I like to pay taxes; with them I buy civilization.”
— Oliver Wendell Holmes
Since the release of our Agenda for Justice, our Branch has had considerable success in making its contents a significant part of the conversation in the upcoming election. Of our 22 proposals for change, two that have been resonating most loudly in the press and on which I have had most media interviews, are the paucity of legal aid funding and the mounting crisis in our courts from lack of sufficient staff. These two areas overlap to increase delay and cost to BC taxpayers, as more litigants are forced to fend for themselves, causing court delay, and as courts remain closed even though judges are available and parties need their day in court.
It makes no sense that courts remain closed due to lack of court clerks and sheriffs, yet it happens regularly. In Victoria, sheriffs have to be flown in from other parts of BC and lodged in hotels at taxpayer expense. Yet even so, the judiciary tells us that one or two courts each week are offline due to sheriff staffing shortages. Twice in February, drug trafficking charges were stayed in Victoria as there was no sheriff to bring the accused to court. Province-wide, the number of sheriffs has dropped by 20% since 2012 – down from 500 to 400. The government is now adding a second class of sheriff training, but the problem is largely retention. Sheriffs make significantly less than other peace officers and they leave the job just as quickly as others join, instead becoming police officers where they are properly paid.
The government announced in the 2017 budget that 2.6 million dollars is being re-allocated from other parts of the justice budget for sheriff training. But that is just robbing Peter to pay Paul.
Lack of court clerks is as big an issue. As an example, in the Vancouver Supreme Court, there are 47 courtrooms and 37 court clerks. Courtrooms there and elsewhere in the province either remain closed, or clerks are pulled from the registry to staff courts, meaning the registry work falls behind. I was in Campbell River recently and was told that court orders are taking months to be entered. This problem is common in many registries and it is not acceptable.
The legal aid tariff is now so low that lawyers cannot afford to act, even in the limited situations where there remains coverage. Their overhead is higher than the base hourly rate of $83.90. In family cases, only emergency situations involving violence or child abduction or access denial have coverage. The rest, including child guardianship and parenting, child support, spousal support and division of assets are not covered. Instead, the courts are being clogged with self-represented litigants (some 40% or more of family cases), stressed and with no idea what they are doing. Yet in the latest budget only some two million dollars was allocated for special Legal Services Society projects, and nothing toward core services.
I have spoken with most of the major news outlets in the past weeks about what is happening and the need to stop treating our justice system as a neglected child, receiving only 1% of the BC budget. But all of us in the CBA – in fact in the legal profession – must consistently raise our voices to demand change for the sake of our citizens, and our democracy that is dependent on a strong legal system. Buying civilization includes properly funding justice.