A group representing British Columbia’s legal aid lawyers says if the provincial government does not boost funding, it will ask its members to vote in favour of withdrawing their services starting on April 1.
The Association of Legal Aid Lawyers said Monday that per capita funding has shrunk by 60 per cent since 1992 and B.C. ranks 10th out of 12 provinces and territories in per capita funding.
Director Richard Fowler said the provincial government must restore per capita funding to 1992 levels, adjusted for inflation. Legal aid lawyers have only had one pay raise in 28 years and their numbers have dropped to 1,000 from 1,500 in 1991, he added.
“These cuts and consistent underfunding for decades have had a disastrous effect on the legal aid system while funding for prosecution services and the courts has increased,” he said in a news release. “There currently is a huge decline in lawyers taking on cases. They just can’t afford to do it.”
Fowler said if the government doesn’t announce funding increases by March 13, the group will ask its 514 members to vote for the job action.
The Ministry of the Attorney General did not immediately respond to a request for comment. However, it released a report on legal aid services shortly after the association made its announcement.
The report by lawyer Jamie Maclaren follows an external review and public consultations with legal aid users that was conducted in the fall, the ministry said.
It makes 25 recommendations including launching an online portal to accept legal aid applications and to help with clients’ legal problems.
The report calls for representatives from the provincial government, the Law Society of B.C. and frontline community service organizations to be appointed to the Legal Services Society board, which oversees legal aid in B.C.
It also recommends broadening the scope of Indigenous legal aid services and creating legal clinics for child protection and refugee cases. And it wants the auditor general to perform a value-for-money audit of Legal Services Society operations.
“Legal aid is not broken in B.C. It has simply lost its way. Years of underfunding and shifting political priorities have taken their toll on the range and quality of legal aid services, and especially on the people who need them,” Maclaren writes.
“Still, the will exists in B.C. to make legal aid more accessible and effective for all its many users.”
The ministry said it would carefully review the report and determine next steps.
Fowler said the reduction in funding since 1991 means only a small number of people qualify for legal aid.
Legal aid for family law is now only available if there’s a threat of violence or if the government is trying to permanently remove a child from their family, and one-person household with an income of more than $1,580 a month is ineligible for a legal aid lawyer in a criminal or family matter, he said.
“This has resulted in courtrooms filled with single mothers without lawyers struggling to deal with child custody matters,” he said.
He said individuals and businesses who pay for legal services in B.C. pay a seven per cent tax on those services. The money raised by the tax is enough to fund a “fair and functioning” legal aid system, Fowler said, but the government does not use the money to fund legal aid.
The Canadian Press