By Ian Mulgrew for The Vancouver Sun
Monica Bruns, a director of the B.C. Paralegal Association and a case manager at Nixon Wenger LLP in Vernon, says forget about the lawyers that Attorney General David Eby wants to metaphorically kill off.
She and other paralegals, who earn about $65,000 a year are worried as the legislation to transform the Insurance Corp. of B.C. and reduce auto insurance rates rolls towards implementation.
“It’s support staff who will be the victims.”
Bruns said there are even more legal assistants, with average full-time salaries of around $55,000, who also will be on the street looking for work — and in a post-COVID economy they are not optimistic.
“It’s hard to believe it’s the NDP who weren’t thinking about the workers and didn’t talk to us,” she added. “These jobs won’t be easily replaced, especially in a small town where I am.”
The paralegals are among a rising chorus of concern about Eby’s plan to reconstruct B.C.’s auto-insurance regime into a no-fault scheme akin to workers’ compensation.
The Canadian Bar Association-B.C. Branch has denounced the radical reforms and the Trial Lawyers Association of B.C., which represents about 1,500 barristers, including most of the personal injury practitioners, has challenged their constitutionality.
Darren Benning, president of PETA Consultants, said he has crunched the numbers and they show between 4,000 and 10,000 people may find themselves out of work, the paralegals and administrative staff, mostly women, who support B.C.’s 2,500 personal-injury lawyers.
Eby says the new model is based on similar public insurance plans on the Prairies that provide some of the lowest and most stable insurance rates. He promises his plan will allow the financially troubled Crown corporation to reduce rates, eliminate an adversarial process and provide better care for the injured.
“At the end of the day, using the remarkable numbers in this (Bennings’s) study, British Columbians simply don’t want to pay more than half a billion dollars for 10,000 lawyers and support staff to fight out car accident claims with ICBC in court,” Eby insisted.
“They want that money to go to delivering them lower rates and better benefits in a system where doctors and specialists direct the care and ICBC has just one job — helping people get better, instead of fighting the injured in court on behalf of at-fault drivers.”
Liberal critic Michael Lee insists it robs the public of choice, diminishes their rights, leaves too much to be defined later, is not supported by current financial figures and is a manifest conflict of interest — Eby is supposed to be the disinterested justice minister but he is making changes to the legal system to financially benefit ICBC.
Eby’s biggest selling point is by eliminating lawyers, slashing legal costs and all but erasing the raison d’être for a personal-injury bar, ICBC will save $1.5 billion.
Maybe, but there are associated costs that won’t be on its balance sheet.
“The conversation hasn’t been fully explored because they are making all these changes to lower premiums, to give you a $400 reduction in premiums,” Benning explained. “That works out to a dollar a day roughly, by the way. Still, everybody likes lower premiums.
“But lots of people are going to find it harsh and I don’t think that story has been talked about because lawyers are the bad guys. Everyone can have their own opinion of lawyers, but there are going to be a lot of other people impacted as well.”
His firm has worked for both sides in litigation in B.C. and Alberta since the turn of the century, providing economic studies and projections.
“Following the implementation of no-fault, there will be significant losses of private-sector jobs in the short-term,” Benning predicted. “In all honesty, it does not seem to be an NDP idea to jettison a couple of thousand jobs when you are in a pandemic recession. It seems ironic.”
In the long-term, he warned many of the lost private-sector jobs will transition to public-sector jobs as ICBC becomes a far bigger bureaucracy, and much of the savings may prove short-lived.
Displaced lawyers can move on to greener pastures because they have transportable skills — they may decide to move, switch into another area of law or start a different business.
The thousands in support roles do not have the same options.
“The actual job losses (from no-fault) will be among paralegals, legal assistants, and administrative staff, plus court reporters, mediation service providers, court registry staff, process servers, claims investigators and other ancillary legal services,” Benning concluded.
The attorney general has relied on the direst forecasts at ICBC to help manufacture a crisis necessitating no-fault insurance, he argued.
Eby noted the transition will happen over at least five years due to the length of time the cases already in the system will take to resolve.
“That time will enable lawyers and support staff to transition to working in other areas of law where they are desperately needed, like family law,” he maintained.
Paralegal Bruns said the downsides of no-fault will be felt across the province as the loss of paycheques ripples through the economy — and other costs not measured in dollars and cents mount.
“It will impact me and impact on the clients I work with,” she said.
“I create relationships with the people I work with. … I have a client from years ago, I still go to lunch with her. She has a brain injury and there’s nothing in it for me, but I’m just a caring person. That’s why I do this job. To help people.”