A4J: More public money needed for legal aid

  • February 15, 2017

By Ian Mulgrew for The Vancouver Sun

The B.C. Liberal Party’s stewardship of the provincial justice system for nearly 16 years has left it teetering on the brink of crisis, says the Canadian Bar Association, B.C. Branch.

In a 26-page document, titled Agenda for Justice, meant to provoke discussion in the upcoming election campaign, the lawyers’ lobby group says more public money must be invested in the legal system — especially legal aid.

“We’ve reached a point here where the continuing cuts, the continuing grinding it to the bone and trying to be more innovative with less money has reached the point where nothing further can really be done there,” said branch president Michael Welsh.

Legal aid funding slashed under the Liberals in their first term, for example, still has not returned to the levels of the last NDP government, which was defeated at the polls in 2001.

“It’s like a car,” Welsh, a Penticton lawyer, said. “If you don’t put the money into fixing the car when it’s broken, you’re not going to have a car any longer. It’s the same with the legal aid system. The core services have been starved for about a decade and a half now. And it’s time to change that.”

From the moment they arrived in office in June 2001, the Liberals under former premier Gordon Campbell closed courthouses and beggared the legal system.

Their tight-fisted fiscal policies were later supplemented by an aggressive use of U.S.-style civil forfeiture, the Internet and administrative law to avoid criminal procedural and civil liberties protections along with expensive bricks-and-mortar, staff-filled courts.

The Liberals shunted small claims from provincial court and condo disputes from Supreme Court into online dispute resolution while the vast majority of drunk-driving offences were diverted to a telephone tribunal.

“For strata disputes, it’s actually been an excellent move,” Welsh conceded, “because they were unsustainable economically when they were being dealt with primarily in Supreme Court.”

In its report, however, the association says the costs of using the legal system now are prohibitive and there is a lack of resources for those who cannot afford legal representation. Insufficient court staffing and a shortage of judges add to the frustrations and delays.

“We have said in our report that the neglect of the system has brought it to a crisis point where it is heading — I don’t want to use the word ‘disaster,’ but it is heading for crisis if it is not addressed and properly funded,” Welsh explained.

“We’ve made that very clear. There are two options at this stage. It either is going to be properly funded so that it continues to work or it’s not going to be there.”

For instance, while the government introduced a new Family Law Act in 2013, it didn’t provide needy families with the necessary resources to take advantage of it.

“The fact that they actually passed a new family law act that seeks to address family-law conflicts through out-of-court procedures was good,” Welsh said.

“The difficulty is there hasn’t been the financial investment for those who cannot afford those procedures to use them.”

Regardless of the political stripe of any incoming administration, Welsh insisted “a social investment” must be made in the legal system.

“This isn’t just people’s legal problems that we are dealing with, these are people’s lives we are dealing with,” he emphasized.

“Legal problems are also social problems and family problems and community problems. It has to be looked at in a wider context or we are going to be in a situation where the legal system isn’t going to be able to be sustainable in terms of people getting adequate representation and having their problems resolved.”