Legal Aid is a desperate need for far too many citizens in BC – people involved in difficult family disputes and daunting criminal matters – but the provincial government leaves them fending for themselves as the system of legal aid is left massively shortchanged!
A Legal Aid Action Committee was created by the Trial Lawyers Association of BC, in 2010, to respond to the BC Government’s long-running refusal to properly fund the province’s system of legal aid, which has endured cuts and underfunding for more than 20 years. Specifically, there is a need to significantly increase the annual budget of the Legal Services Society of BC (administrators of legal aid), which has been forced to operate with a terribly limited amount of resources, thereby providing fewer services to fewer citizens. In short, it has become harder for people to qualify for legal aid, and there are fewer services covered than there were in the early 1990s. The only thing that has increased in recent years is the amount of self-represented litigants stumbling their way through the courts, simply because they cannot afford legal assistance. As a result, overall, justice in BC takes longer and costs more! Though it has been a hard-fought multi-year struggle, members of the legal profession are bolstered by the fact that so many lawyers have not been deterred. In honour of BC’s citizens, they continue to battle for legal aid.
September 2015 – For Now, No More Blackouts on Legal Aid
Members of the long-serving, hard-working Legal Aid Action Committee decided to put a halt to the blackout periods that were established in the summer of 2014. The result of the decision put an end to the week-long service blackouts that were conducted at the start of each month in various parts of the province (all done to protest the BC Government’s chronic lack of funding for legal aid). The blackouts began in Vancouver and Kamloops. Support grew to involve lawyers from Richmond, Nanaimo, North Vancouver, Surrey and Victoria. Though the support was strong in seven big parts of the province, overall this particular form of protest ran its course. New plans are now in the works to continue awareness efforts regarding the need for legal aid. Many thanks to all members of the Legal Aid Action Committee and every lawyer who supported the blackouts during the past year. Special thanks to the committee’s three co-chairs: Phil Rankin, Birgit Eder and Chris Johnson.
Legal aid blackouts were rolling until August 2015
For nearly a year, seven areas of the province were impacted by blackouts carried out at the start of each month by lawyers actively engaged in a widespread protest of the BC Government’s lack of funding for legal aid. At the start of 2015, lawyers in North Vancouver joined the lawyers who began refusing service last summer and fall (2014) in Kamloops, Nanaimo, Victoria, Vancouver, Surrey and Richmond. These areas of the province were subjected to one-week-of-each-month blackouts until August 2015. In these areas subjected, protest-participating lawyers refused to provide or schedule legal services during blackout weeks. The blackouts took effect the first Monday of each month, and continued for a week.
WHY? The blackouts were undertaken because the BC Government continues to leave the system dreadfully underfunded, despite the massive need many citizens have for legal assistance.
Far too many citizens require help but can neither afford a lawyer nor qualify for the extremely limited resources of legal aid. Consequently, they are forced to represent themselves in stressful family matters and difficult criminal cases. Too many citizens are forced into such circumstances, and this has been the case for far too long.
SCOPE OF COMMITMENT: Unlike the escalating withdrawals carried out a few years prior, the recent blackout efforts did not include courthouse duty counsel, the lawyers on the frontlines at courthouses in BC. But, many other lawyers were involved and – more important – they are still committed to carrying on with awareness efforts aimed at getting the BC Government to make a substantial commitment to restoring legal aid to the level citizens could rely upon prior to 2002, i.e. prior to the time when a prolonged period of government cuts and government-office closures took hold.
A series of awareness and protest efforts
Lawyers across the province have been protesting the lack of funding in the system for a long time. There has been a multi-headed series of service withdrawals in different forms for several consecutive years, some targeting specific services (e.g. courthouse duty counsel) and certain types of cases (e.g. criminal harassment, out-of-custody assaults, charges related to the Vancouver riots of 2011).
The current blackouts are comprehensive in that all legal services are being refused by lawyers supporting the cause. Their goal is to draw attention to the dire need for a vastly improved system, one in which citizens who require legal assistance can rely upon.
Support builds since the summer 2014 re-start
As planned, legal aid lawyers withdrew services for a full month beginning on July 5, 2014 and ending on August 8, 2014. The plan was then in place to withdrawal services the first week of each month, from October 2014 onward, and carry on indefinitely, with the idea being that this would continue for the foreseeable future, throughout 2015, and beyond, if necessary – barring a decision by the BC Government to make a significant and ongoing commitment of added money and resources to help citizens in need of legal assistance. As TLABC continued to advise news media, far too many individuals are left to fend for themselves in the courts, stumbling as self-represented litigants are destined to do.
IN THE NEWS: To kickoff the 2014 summer work withdrawal, dozens of lawyers assembled outside the Provincial Courthouse in Vancouver on July 7, to mark the start of the series of planned withdrawals ahead. This effort to raise awareness about the dire need for a properly funded system of legal aid provided a strong start to the effort, particularly in terms of media exposure. Many media outlets covered the story prior to the event and media coverage continued on event day and beyond.
Here is a small sample of coverage:
- BC lawyers protest lack of funding for legal aid – Globe and Mail
- BC Lawyers protest lack of legal aid funding – Global TV This is a double-piece (with both TV and print coverage)
- Lawyers withdraw services to protest lack of legal aid funding – The Vancouver Sun
- Vancouver lawyers refusing to take legal aid cases – CKWX News 1130
News media in multiple markets remain fully apprised of the battle tactics being carried out by many BC lawyers lined up in support of protest and awareness plans. Reporters and broadcasters from multiple news outlets continue to track the developments.
Here is a sample of news since the blackouts resumed in the fall of 2014:
- Legal aid awarded to woman fighting ex-husband’s vacation plans – CBC News
- Legal aid denied: Woman asks court to overturn decision – CBC News
- BC lawyers set to resume protest of lack of funding for legal aid – The Globe and Mail
- BC legal aid blackout begins today – News 1130
FEBRUARY 2015 – BUDGET SPEECH DEVOID OF HOPE FOR CITIZENS IN NEED OF LEGAL AID
Legal aid was not addressed in the BC Government’s budget speech this February. It’s as if the governing Liberals believe it is better to avoid addressing a topic their party is anything but liberal on when it comes to funding the province’s broken system of legal aid.
Here was the first line of the Ministry of Finance’s news release on February 17, also known as Budget Day: “The BC Government’s third-consecutive balanced budget builds toward a stronger more diversified economy and delivers additional support to British Columbians who are most in need.”
Sounds good, right? THE PROBLEM IS: Our province continues to turn its back on many of its citizens, people in dire need of legal assistance, particularly in family matters and criminal cases.
Troubling tax, the real pain
By way of a provincial tax on legal services, the BC Government continues to target only the legal profession by taxing citizens for the legal services they use. This equates to more than $145 million being collected each year, though the provincial government refuses to supply the Legal Services Society (the administrators of legal aid) with even half of that. Some money from the federal government and a bit of BC grant money round out the budget.
It is, however, at least $65 million short of what the BC Government takes in by way of its unfair but long-standing tax on citizens. The reality is sad and sobering. Far too many citizens continue to be forced to represent themselves in highly difficult circumstances, despite being in big need of help.
And so the blackouts that started in 2014 continue to roll in 2015, with the dates already set to carry through the end of the year and beyond.
GOVERNMENT SURPLUSES, INCIDENTALLY: The BC Government projected that by the end of March 2015 there would be a budget surplus for the year of $879 million. Additionally, there is $400 million in a contingency fund and the BC Liberals anticipate having a billion dollars each of the next three years in surpluses and contingencies. And all of that is in addition to the non-partisan governing tradition of claiming and re-directing hundreds of millions each year from Crown corporation ICBC’s profits, despite the fact the so-called people’s auto insurer was never intended to be a money-maker.
More tax to be taken (in Metro Vancouver?)
Meanwhile, there is the matter of what could become a heavier burden, the provincial tax could increase throughout Metro Vancouver by way of the transit-tax referendum. Regardless of personal thoughts as to the merits of a “congestion tax,” a concern exists as to the impact a half-percent increase would have if applied to legal services. Evidently, the tax will be applied to the majority of goods and services sold or provided in Metro Vancouver.
Seeing as the legal profession never should have been targeted in the first place, the new tax would add further injury to the decades-old combo of insult and injury. It remains unclear as to whether citizens will be forced to pay the additional .5% tax for the legal services they obtain. That would certainly be an added burden on people who are already forced to pay 7% on top of the cost of their legal services.
These citizens have the sad distinction of being the only sector of the population forced to pay a provincial tax on professional services. That is, no other profession is subjected to a provincial tax on its services. The legal profession has been the lone target of this tax since the early 1990s. But, it is ordinary citizens who pay the price.
Related January 2015 news sample: Legal aid lawyers concerned about the proposed transit tax – CKNW News
Both the governing party and the Official Opposition are aware that lawyers have been upset about the tax from the outset. While it continues to be collected, the money generated should be devoted to legal aid, as it should have been from the start. Our citizens deserve at least that much, but – sadly – it has never been about them.
So, we simply do not know if things will get even worse for citizens in Metro Vancouver or if their law clients will avoid the added burden brought on by an even heavier tax. The profession should be exempt of the congestion tax if it becomes a reality after the results of the plebiscite are tallied. There is not a justifiable reason to link legal services and transit congestion, just as there wasn’t a reason to tax legal services in the first place. However, it certainly would be a consistent – albeit perverse – play by the provincial government.
A great commission report gathers dust, four years and counting
Four years have passed since a commission on legal aid submitted its report to the BC Government. “Foundation for Change” – the March 2011 report from highly respected commissioner Mr. Leonard T. Doust, QC – concluded that the provision of legal aid should be an essential service. The well-rounded findings have essentially been disregarded as the report continues to collect dust on a shelf somewhere in Victoria.
Meanwhile, the government continues to collect more than $145 million each year by taxing citizens on the legal services they obtain.
Use this link to hear directly from Mr. Doust, as well as to locate the commission’s final report.
Did you know?
The May 2013 provincial-election defeat of the NDP (which was in stark contrast to pre-election polling) had a direct, negative impact on the future of legal aid, given that the NDP’s election platform earmarked $17 million in new money for legal aid over the three years following the election.
And so the aim remains: Raise awareness and get the BC Government to commit to a substantial increase in the budget it provides to the Legal Services Society (LSS) and – in turn – make it easier for individual citizens to qualify for legal aid by empowering LSS to provide a broader range of services. Until then, A SAD TRUTH REMAINS: Too many citizens in dire need of legal assistance are forced to represent themselves when they cannot afford to pay for a lawyer.
But, a SIMPLE yet COMPLETE SOLUTION is still available. The BC Government could keep 1/3 of the money it collects annually from its tax on legal services and still be able fund LSS to approximately $108 million, which is about $30 million less than the LSS budget (which includes federal contributions, as well as grant money).
The lawyers supporting the cause will continue their efforts barring a positive policy reversal by the BC Government, which – not so incidentally – continues to collect at least $145 million each year from citizens by way of the tax on legal services, yet refuses to supply the LSS with a sum anywhere near that.
The provincial tax on legal services remains a huge burden for citizens and the legal profession as a whole. This money should be allocated to funding the legal system (as originally intended), rather than continuing to be taken into general revenue by, and for, the BC Government.
Random sampling of coverage by news media
- Lawyers to withdraw legal aid services this summer in Protest – News1130
- Legal aid strike action looms again – Surrey Leader
- New Westminster lawyer part of Rally in Ribbons and Robes protest against provincial legal aid cuts – New West Record
- Lawyers and supporters gathered in front of the Kamloops Law Courts to protest cutbacks in legal aid funding and to announce job action designed pressure the provincial government into restoring it.