Properly funding legal aid is important for all

  • August 15, 2012

Source: Nanaimo Daily News
Byline: Darrell Bellaart

As a society we have to spend more on our justice system by way of legal aid.

Federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson reportedly avoided lawyers calling for more legal aid funding, made by the Canadian Bar Association at a Vancouver conference this week.

Legal aid arose in Canada during the 1960s to ensure justice exists for all people in Canada, by providing access to legal services to everyone, regardless of income.

Once well-funded, it helped make Canada a model for the world.

Since the 1990s, the system has been eroded and faces death by 1,000 cuts.

Yet our federal politicians seem intent to move closer to the U.S. model, where a country with 5% of the world's population holds a quarter of the world's prisoners, according to a New York Times story.

It's natural to want to jail those who hurt others with their actions. Punishment can send a strong message to wrongdoers.

Jail especially serves a purpose when dealing with sociopaths who lack the conscience to such a degree, and act in such an antisocial manner that there is really no other way to deal with them.

But the great majority of people caught in the cogs of the justice system are not antisocial, and in many cases, aren't even there for criminal matters.

Poverty is at the core of why we have legal aid. A complex legal system, built up from myriad legal precedents set by judges in law courts dating back to the Middle Ages, makes for a system daunting to any lawyer, let alone a lay person.

When someone finds themselves face to face with the courts, it's naive to believe one can simply state their case and win. That's why we have lawyers.

After seeing legal aid eroded over the years, the Canadian Bar Association wants Nicholson to reverse that trend. Government's get-tough-on-crime approach is seen as a way to only fill jails, increasing taxpayer costs, without addressing the causes of crime.

Legal aid is a main pillar of the Canadian justice system, which is considered among the best in the Western world. And B.C. once had one of the best legal aid systems in Canada. To support it, the New Democrats introduced a tax on legal bills in the 1990s.

That changed under Gordon Campbell's Liberals. A government core review led to 5% cuts to all ministries, provincewide. At the attorney general's ministry, most of the cuts came from legal aid.

"So they decided access to the justice system wasn't a core service," said Diane Brennan, who spent much of the 1980s and '90s as a paralegal working on legal aid cases for clients living below the poverty line.

Nicholson defended the federal government's stance on justice at the Vancouver legal conference.

The funding increased $81 million under the Conservatives' watch, and he said other changes help crime victims while punishing perpetrators.

Lawyers who see the people who benefit from legal aid say it's not nearly enough.

Brennan knows the value of legal aid to people living on limited income.

Giving access to legal resources when needed fosters trust in the system for the poor, and people with mental illness.

"If you can't trust you will have fair treatment, then you can't really trust the system in any way," Brennan said.

"Or if you think you can be imprisoned, without a fair trial, if you don't have the money to pay for a lawyer, and that can happen to you."

Legal aid can give representation to the father out of work, who missed a few mortgage payments and faces loss of the family home.

Legal aid can provide the support needed to a family whose children were apprehended by the authorities, with no direct recourse available, other than the courts. It helps workers with workers compensation claims and welfare recipients who get cut off.

It's too important to lose.