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Legal aid strike action looms again

Lawyers protesting chronic underfunding for legal aid plan to suspend that service in July. - Black Press file photo
Lawyers protesting chronic underfunding for legal aid plan to suspend that service in July.
— image credit: Black Press file photo

Some B.C. lawyers are once again planning to withdraw legal aid services in a bid to force the provincial government to pour more money into the system.

Bentley Doyle, spokesman for the Trial Lawyers Association of B.C., said participating lawyers will halt work on existing legal aid cases and refuse new ones for the month of July.

Previous legal aid 'strikes' split the legal community and there's no sign the tactic will be embraced by all lawyers this time either.

Doyle said 50 to 75 lawyers in Vancouver are on board, as well as a group in Kamloops and the aim is to recruit more in other areas.

"We have good support in places like Kelowna," he said.

The plan is to continue the action in the fall with one-week-a-month stoppages starting in October. Both criminal and family law cases will be affected.

The recommendation of the TLA's legal aid action committee comes on the heels of the provincial government's decision to provide an extra $2 million for justice transformation pilot projects.

That boosts the budget of the Legal Services Society to $74.5 million, helping unwind some of the cuts of recent years, but the budget of the agency that provides legal aid is still down more than 20 per cent from 2001.

"It's a drop in the bucket," Doyle said of the extra money, which the province says will fund initiatives to more quickly resolve legal cases, such as mediation and out-of-court solutions.

The TLA continues to argue more funding should come from the seven per cent legal services tax that it says B.C. originally created to fund legal aid, although successive governments have denied that was the intent.

"That seven per cent is generating more than $140 million per year for the government," Doyle said. "The system is barely getting half of that back in legal aid."

He said chronic underfunding of legal aid has meant tighter means tests over the years that leave a growing number of people inefficiently representing themselves before the courts.

B.C. Crown Counsel Association past president Samiran Lakshman said self-represented litigants are an ongoing problem in the courts, adding nine out of 10 family law cases have at least one party appearing without a lawyer.

"It's the children of B.C. who get robbed of justice when the parents don't have all the tools they need to make their case," he said.

Adding to the problem, Lakshman said, is the shrinking number of lawyers willing to do legal aid work in B.C. because the money provided makes it "simply unsustainable."

The court system continues to run with too few judges, he said, as well as insufficient staff in other areas, such as court registries, which sometimes close for the afternoon because there aren't enough clerks to both handle registry inquiries and record proceedings in court.

But measurements of court congestion have improved in most respects – the length of time to get a half-day criminal case to trial has improved from more than 10 months in 2011 to just five, below the provincial goal of six months.

Lakshman agreed there's been dramatic improvement on criminal cases, but said delays are "getting intolerable" for family court and there continue to be signs of severe congestion in specific courthouses.

A Surrey courtroom recently had one day when six full-day trials were scheduled, he said.

"We don't have a healthy justice system."

Justice Minister Suzanne Anton said the Legal Services Society has assured her it will do its best to refer clients to willing legal aid lawyers in the event of job action, potentially by bringing them in from other areas if necessary.

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