By Ian Burns for The Lawyer's Daily
British Columbia has outlined its fiscal plan for the next three years, and like their federal cousins B.C. lawmakers are focusing on the short-term need to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and a long-term focus on job growth and economic recovery.
The pandemic has wreaked havoc on B.C.’s finances, with a forecasted deficit of $8.1 billion for 2020-21, down from the $13.6 billion envisioned in the fall 2020 economic update. B.C.’s real gross domestic product (GDP) is estimated to have declined by 5.3 per cent in 2020. As the recovery continues, B.C.’s real GDP is forecast to grow by 4.4 per cent in 2021 and 3.8 per cent in 2022, reaching pre-pandemic levels by next year. A steadily declining deficit is projected over the next three years, beginning in 2021-22.
But Finance Minister Selina Robinson said “we can see the light at the end of tunnel.”
“We know a recovery won’t happen overnight, but by focusing on the things that matter most to people, we can ensure there are better days ahead for everyone,” she said. “Budget 2021 is built from everything we have learned in the last year to continue helping people now, while laying the foundation for people and businesses in our province to seize the opportunities that recovery will offer.”
As with the recently released federal budget, B.C.’s plan, unveiled April 20, focuses on protecting people’s health through the pandemic while making investments to support an economic recovery. The budget contains $900 million in new funding for testing, contact tracing, personal protective equipment and the vaccine rollout, plus increased investment in long-term care facilities and home care, as well as mental health supports.
The budget increases infrastructure spending by $3.5 billion and invests in post-secondary education and skills training, and it creates a new $500-million strategic investment fund to help businesses grow. It also builds on the B.C. NDP government’s focus on climate change and Indigenous issues, with $506 million in new investments in the CleanBC climate strategy and a focus on implementing the provincial Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act.
“There are challenges ahead, but I am confident that by drawing on our shared resilience we will get through these challenges together,” said Robinson. “Time and time again, British Columbians have proven that we care for one another. We care for our communities, and we care for the province that we call home. To all those listening, B.C. is coming back — stronger than ever.”
In terms of justice sector supports, the province is providing an additional $132 million over three years to support courts, family dispute resolution, legal clinics, parent legal centres and family maintenance enforcement services. The province’s court modernization strategy will receive an investment of $16 million over three years, plus an additional $73 million over the same time frame to support public safety services such as policing and security. In addition, $330 million has been earmarked over three years to provide treatment and recovery services for people experiencing substance use issues.
Jennifer Brun, president of the Canadian Bar Association, B.C. Branch (CBABC), said her organization applauded the budget’s efforts to support the “evolution of a modern justice system and meaningful change for Indigenous peoples.”
“We are pleased that today’s budget announcement directs critical funding to the modernization of our justice system, including virtualization of our courts and electronic filing solutions, along with investment in providing reliable, high-speed broadband services to rural, remote and Indigenous communities,” she said. “These investments will have a direct impact on increasing access to justice for all British Columbians.”
But Brun said she was disappointed legal aid funding for contested family law matters (was) not addressed.
“This leaves some of B.C.’s most vulnerable families unable to access legal representation during these very difficult times,” she said. “Further, we are concerned that the budget does not include funding to ensure involuntary detainees under the Mental Health Act have access to independent legal representation. This is a glaring omission, particularly in light of government’s focus on mental health services during the pandemic.”
More information about the B.C. budget can be found here.