By Ian Burns for The Lawyer's Daily
The Canadian Bar Association, B.C. Branch (CBABC) is asking the B.C. government to increase funding for legal aid and to make changes to the recently transformed auto insurance system in the province as part of a number of recommendations it says will help to serve modern needs and lead to the efficient resolution of legal conflicts in B.C.
An Agenda for Justice – Platform Updates 2018 expands on a previous action plan issued by the organization in 2017. CBABC president Margaret Mereigh said the association is not abandoning what it identified as being important previously, but noted legal aid and the changes at the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC) are emerging issues. She noted the legal aid tariff has only had one increase since 1991 and said the provincial sales tax on legal services, which raises upwards of $200 million a year, should be dedicated to legal aid exclusively.
“Things are becoming much more acute with legal aid and ICBC. I was called to the bar in 1991, and I’m going into my 28th year of practice,” she said. “With only one increase you have lawyers who can’t afford to act anymore with the cost of living and other things going up. The Legal Services Society [which administers legal aid] is flying in lawyers to remote areas, and these lawyers aren’t familiar with local issues or support programs. You need to develop a relationship with your lawyer, just as you do with your doctor.”
Changes to legal aid would help to increase access to justice in the family law sphere, which Mereigh said is the area where there is the biggest need in the province.
“If we’re going to make sure we’re addressing the needs of the most vulnerable in our society, the place we need to focus on is family law,” she said. “We know this is where many people can’t afford to have legal services, so you can have an acute situation where there is a child access dispute or separation of property and people aren’t being represented.”
And there are other areas where B.C. can be proactive on family law, said Mereigh. The CBABC is urging the government to apply for federal funding to set up Unified Family Courts in the province, where jurisdiction over family matters is consolidated into one court.
“You’ve got split jurisdiction between the provincial court and the provincial Supreme Court [on family matters], so sometimes you’re in parallel courts. It can be extremely complicated to deal with one court, let alone two,” she said. “There would be a single location with a judge that would have jurisdiction to hear the whole range of family matters, as well as related physical services in the building including counsellors and psychologists. It just creates that one convenient location where those services can be sought and acquired by members of the public.”
The recent changes to the ICBC have also been concerning to CBABC, said Mereigh. Earlier this year, British Columbia capped minor injury claims at $5,500 and expanded the provincial Civil Resolution Tribunal (CRT) to look at some insurance cases, changes Mereigh said are “unduly and unfairly restricting.”
“Reducing costs [at ICBC] shouldn’t be borne by those who are injured,” she said. “What government should be looking at is the fundamental causes behind what’s causing the increased costs. I think a big part of that is related to distracted driving, and what they need to be doing is looking at how to reduce distracted driving and their current claims adjusting practices.”
Issues of Indigenous justice should continue to be something the government concentrates on, said Mereigh. She noted the CBABC is asking the government to fund Gladue reports for all Indigenous offenders who are facing sentencing, as well as cultural competency training.
“I think that it’s important to have those reports so the judge who is sentencing has a full understanding of the context from which this individual emerges, and that context is really important in order to arrive at a fair and suitable sentence,” she said “But this also relates to the legal aid issue and the other things we are talking about. We have to make sure Indigenous offenders are being represented by capable counsel and those who have family law matters aren’t being restricted from qualifying for legal aid.”
Mereigh said she hasn’t had any feedback from government apart from an appearance before the B.C. legislature’s finance committee, where the legal aid tariff and Unified Family Courts were discussed.
“The aspiration and the ask is that there will be movement on the legal aid tariff and there will be funds made available to the Legal Services Society so that they can address the tariff rate,” she said. “We are also of the view that there should not be a cap on injuries and motor vehicle issues should remain with the courts and not the tribunal, and that ICBC can address the financial issues in a whole host of other ways instead of penalizing motorists who through no fault of their own are the victims of motor vehicle accidents.”
The Canadian Bar Association is the professional organization representing more than 38,000 lawyers, judges and law students across Canada with over 7,000 members in British Columbia.