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B.C. lawyers set to resume protest of ‘lack of funding’ for legal aid

Lawyers gather outside a Vancouver courthouse to protest the underfunding of legal aid, July 7, 2014.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

B.C. lawyers will resume their protest next week of what they call the chronic underfunding of legal aid.

Lawyers in Vancouver and Kamloops refused to schedule legal aid cases for a month during the summer, as they publicly urged the Liberal government to pump more money into the system.

Birgit Eder, a member of the Trial Lawyers Association of B.C.'s legal aid action committee, said the protest will resume next week, and will continue for the first full week of every month. And, Ms. Eder said, the withdrawal of services will expand to courthouses in Victoria, Surrey and Richmond.

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"The plan behind it is to demonstrate to the [Justice Minister] how wasteful her lack of funding for legal aid actually is. Because we're going to have a highly paid judge sitting in court, doing virtually nothing. A court clerk doing nothing. A Crown counsel, in the criminal matters, doing nothing. A sheriff, doing nothing," she said in an interview.

The Trial Lawyers Association has said the amount of money put into legal aid by government lags far behind other court spending, and that 40 per cent of people accused in criminal court must now represent themselves. It has said 90 per cent of people in small-claims court represent themselves, while in family court it's 95 per cent.

One of the central disagreements between the association and the province involves a tax on legal services instituted in the 1990s. The association has said the revenue was supposed to go directly to legal aid. Justice Minister Suzanne Anton has said the government of the day had mentioned the tax would help offset the cost of legal aid, but never intended the money to go exclusively to it.

Ms. Eder said lawyers in Nanaimo will join the protest in November, and North Vancouver will come on board in January. She said discussions with lawyers in two other jurisdictions, Abbotsford and Port Coquitlam, continue.

Ms. Eder said it's difficult to quantify how much of an effect the summer protest had. She said some courtrooms went dark, and the withdrawal of services brought the issue to the public's attention.

Mark Benton, executive director of the Legal Services Society, said the summer withdrawal did have an impact, though he too said it was difficult to quantify.

"They certainly were quite effective at making it difficult for us to maintain duty counsel services in a number of locales around the province over the summer, so we actually had to reduce services. For example, we were flying lawyers into Kamloops to do duty counsel services, and to do that we had to reduce the amount of duty counsel service to pay for the flights," he said in an interview.

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Ms. Eder said duty counsel services for people who are already in custody will not be affected by this latest round of protests, so matters such as bail hearings will continue uninterrupted.

Mr. Benton said the society understands the lawyers' frustration since "the rates we pay them are far below what they were 10 years ago, just because inflation has eaten away at the rates we pay."

Ms. Anton, in a written statement, said the Legal Services Society has a plan to ensure services will be available during the withdrawal. When local counsel is unavailable, the society will make arrangements to bring counsel in from other areas, if necessary, she said.

Bentley Doyle, a spokesman for the Trial Lawyers Association, said the last formal discussion with the minister on the topic of legal aid was in April. However, he said that was a general meeting where several other matters were also discussed.

The province is providing the Legal Services Society with $74.5-million this fiscal year. That includes a $2-million investment in pilot projects that was announced in May. Ms. Anton held a news conference earlier this week to kick off two of the projects – expanded family duty counsel services in Victoria, and increased hours for a family law telephone information line.

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