VEENSTRA: B.C. legal aid in dire need of government funding

  • December 13, 2017

By Bill Veenstra, Canadian Bar Association, B.C. Branch President for 2017-18 for the Penticton Herald

Every Canadian citizen fundamentally deserves access to justice.

According to the Canadian Forum on Civil Justice, in any three year period, approximately 50 per cent of adult Canadians will experience at least one everyday legal problem. Among the most emotionally distressing are family related matters, involving relationship breakdowns, child custody and sometimes even violence.

In most critical situations, these legal problems often go unresolved, which doesn’t just affect the families involved but can spread through our communities causing larger social problems.

Legal aid administered through the Legal Services Society is vital to B.C.’s justice system because it ensures those who qualify for support find a resolution to their legal matters. However, legal aid funding was severely cut by the provincial government back in 2002. A drastic degradation of service has affected the province ever since.

Today, current funding levels for family law cases only provide for emergencies that involve actual or threatened safety or violence issues, or the serious denial of access to children.

In our provincial court family division, approximately 40 per cent of hearings proceed with at least one party not having legal representation. When someone appears in court without a lawyer’s representation, the process slows down considerably. This inefficiency produces unfair outcomes for B.C. families and places them at a disadvantage within the justice system. 

And when our most vulnerable citizens get caught up in the court system, they often end up in a downward spiral that leads to increased demand in other areas (social assistance, health care, etc.)

An adjacent concern is legal aid lawyers who are finding it increasingly difficult to afford to act on behalf of British Columbians who qualify for and need this assistance. The “tariff,” or hourly rate, paid to legal aid lawyers has increased once since 1991 – only one increase in a generation.

Many dedicated and qualified lawyers simply cannot afford to provide representation in legal aid cases. Often, the tariff is less than the cost of the lawyers’ hourly overhead. This makes it challenging for the Legal Services Society to attract and retain capable lawyers to assist low-income clients with resolving their legal issues.

In a child protection case, for example, a legal aid lawyer is compensated at around 60 per cent of what a government-hired lawyer may be paid. In numbers, that’s an hourly rate of $84 versus $135.

Today, the Canadian Bar Association, B.C. Branch, continues our urgent call for adequate funding to ensure basic legal representation in family law cases. Estimates show an additional $15 million can return family law services near to the levels in place before the 2002 budget reduction. With improved funding, the Legal Services Society can increase service to those in crisis and more effectively address crucial matters like family security and financial stability.

A tariff increase must be made hand-in-hand with additional funding, because even if legal aid receives greater support, it won’t matter if there are fewer qualified lawyers willing to take on legal aid cases.

We are encouraged by the B.C. attorney general’s commitment to prioritizing access to justice including increased funding for legal aid and look forward to working with the provincial government on these issues of vital importance to ensure a just, democratic and fair society in B.C.