Legal aid boost in eye of beholder

  • February 21, 2018

By Ian Mulgrew for The Vancouver Sun

B.C. Attorney General David Eby is getting kudos from the Legal Services Society for funding hikes announced in Tuesday’s provincial budget, but other justice stakeholders say the NDP is continuing to beggar legal aid.

Mark Benton, CEO of the non-profit service provider, acknowledged the pressing problem with the pittance paid to lawyers, but he emphasized the first serious injection of money in a generation was good news.

“Over all, we’ll get about $13 million more,” Benton explained in an interview Wednesday, “the largest new funding increase since 2002 (when Premier Gordon Campbell’s Liberal government slashed the society’s budget).

“I was worried that competing demands on the provincial budget might squeeze us out, but this is beyond what we expected. We will be able to make a real difference on a couple of fronts.”

The Canadian Bar Association-B.C. Branch and other legal groups, however, were disappointed there wasn’t more money for the society that scrapes along on roughly $80 million a year.

For years, they have been calling for greatly increased legal-aid funding.

“We highlighted the need for reinvestment in legal aid in our budget submissions,” said Kasari Govender, executive director of West Coast LEAF, a non-profit working to end discrimination against women. “Some additional funds are welcome, but this falls far short.”

B.C. offers the lowest level of legal support in Canada for needy families, only about 4,000 a year get help — six of 10 are turned away.

The province provides restricted legal aid only in cases of family violence, of kids being unlawfully removed from the jurisdiction, or of an unreasonable denial of access.

The society had to fly lawyers into Kelowna last summer to handle family cases because no one would work for its rates. Twice last year, Benton threatened to shut down services for refugees because he was running out of money.

“The safety, dignity, and well-being of women and children are at stake when legal aid services are chronically and woefully underfunded, as they are currently in British Columbia,” Govender insisted. “We were looking to Tuesday’s budget to address this significant gap in the justice system, but these additional dollars are nowhere near what is required to meet the needs of those dealing with relationship breakdown or fleeing violence.”

The bar association, with about 7,000 provincial members, complained, too, that the new funding was miserly.

“All British Columbians, especially our most vulnerable, need effective access to legal advice and representation,” CBA-BC president Bill Veenstra said.

He was particularly concerned that once again there would be no increase in pay for lawyers.

In child-protection cases, for example, Veenstra pointed out a legal-aid lawyer is compensated at around 60 per cent of what a government lawyer may be paid — an hourly rate of $84 versus $135.

“The current tariff has increased just once since 1991, and does not provide reasonable compensation for those assisting low-income people who qualify for legal aid,” he emphasized. “It is far behind the rate in comparable jurisdictions like Ontario.”

Benton preferred to see his glass as half-full.

He said the society will receive $4.7 million more for family and child protection services — which means it can provide more help to more people.

“We were only able to get many of those most difficult cases to the stage of an interim order,” Benton explained. “With this additional funding we expect to be able to get them through to completion in family cases.”

In child protection cases, he said the society would be able to extend coverage to other family members.

“Right now, it’s only parents that have representation,” he said. “We will be able to extend legal aid to others, such as grandparents, in child protection cases and that will have a great positive impact in Indigenous communities where extended families have a greater role in children’s lives.”

A further $3.8 million a year will fund the expansion of the Parents Legal Centres, successful family support programs that Grand Chief Ed John recommended be offered in six more communities.

“We think this is a game-changer in child protection, and it’s exciting to be rolling it out across the province over the next year once we have final budget approval,” Benton said.

There was also an additional $4.3 million annually for criminal legal aid (part of which is federal funding that flows through from the province), he added.

The tariff problem remains the elephant in the room.

“It’s a big and expensive problem, the funding won’t allow us to address it at this point,” Benton conceded. “The tariff rates are low, but there is no question an across-the-board increase is not in the cards.”