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B.C. lawyers protest lack of funding for legal aid

Lawyers gather outside a Vancouver courthouse on Monday to protest the underfunding of legal aid.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Dressed in their black robes and armed with protest signs, dozens of lawyers stood outside a Vancouver courthouse on Monday and blasted the province for what they call the chronic underfunding of legal aid.

Lawyers in Vancouver and Kamloops will not schedule any new legal aid matters for the rest of the month as they urge the Liberal government to pump more money into the system. Starting in October, lawyers in other jurisdictions across the province will join the protest and refuse to work on legal aid cases during the first week of each month.

Birgit Eder, a member of the Trial Lawyers Association of British Columbia's legal aid action committee, told reporters outside Vancouver provincial court that current levels of funding mean many British Columbians cannot access justice in a meaningful way.

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"Our legal aid system is broken," Ms. Eder said.

She said there was a time when every British Columbian who needed a lawyer had one, no matter what their financial status, but that is no longer the case.

She said that is a direct result of provincial government underfunding. She noted Gordon Campbell's government cut the legal aid budget by 40 per cent in 2002, and said the amount of money put into the system today is about the same as it was in the early 1990s.

Mark Benton, executive director of the Legal Services Society, said in a phone interview that the organization has been squeezing every dime for the past decade. He said the group has not been able to improve pay for lawyers who take legal aid cases, even as other costs in the justice system have risen.

"We don't have enough funding to ensure that we're able to deliver services, pay lawyers at a reasonable rate and fulfill our statutory mandate," he said.

Mr. Benton said three out of four people who apply for legal aid for criminal cases get a lawyer. For family court cases, he said, two out of three legal aid requests are refused.

He said it is too early to tell what impact the protest will have.

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The province announced a $2-million increase for the Legal Services Society in May. However, the money is for pilot projects.

After the lawyers announced the protest last month, Justice Minister Suzanne Anton said in a statement that the government recognizes the important role of legal aid in providing services to British Columbians. She cited the money for pilot projects and said the ministry is looking at ways to improve access to the justice system.

A government spokeswoman said on Monday the minister had nothing new to add to the statement.

One of the central disagreements between the Trial Lawyers Association and the province involves a tax on legal services instituted in the 1990s. The association says the revenue was supposed to go directly to legal aid. Ms. Anton has said the government of the day had mentioned that the tax would help offset the cost of legal aid, but never intended the money to go straight to legal aid.

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