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Pro bono work can’t fill gaps in B.C.'s legal aid system

While it's no secret that the Canadian justice system is in desperate need of reform, there are aspects of it that are in particularly dire shape.

The legal aid system is one. A lack of funding has mostly eroded its effectiveness, creating troubling discrepancies in access to justice. Those who suffer most from increasing barriers are the poor and disadvantaged.

The situation is particularly grave in B.C., where the Liberal government slashed funding in 2002. The move forced the closure of 85 per cent of legal aid offices in the province. Over the years, trial lawyers have tried to force the government to restore resources by boycotting certain types of cases. The tactics have had little effect.

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The funding void has been filled, mostly, by lawyers who work for free to help out those in need. It's known as pro bono and over the past decade it has, sadly, become an institutionalized part of our legal system.

In B.C., many of these lawyers offer up their time through the Access Pro Bono Society of BC. These are the ones you don't often read about. They're not gouging clients or providing fodder for the millions of lawyer jokes that make us laugh. Rather, after finishing their paid work, they toil into the evening and often on weekends for little more than a handshake and a smile.

On Wednesday at New Westminster's Hyack Square, and on Friday at Vancouver's Victory Square, more than 100 lawyers who belong to the Pro Bono Society will be on hand to provide free legal advice to low-income people. It's also an opportunity to draw attention to the access-to-justice crisis in Canada while at the same time raising a little money to fund their operation.

The society is a non-profit that operates on little more than the goodwill of others. When it comes to raising money, it can't compete with other organizations that, for instance, help the sick. Yet there are few groups out there that deserve our support as much.

"The funding cuts have hurt a lot of areas but especially civil legal aid or what we call poverty law," says lawyer Jamie Maclaren, executive director of the society. "These are cases where people are getting bumped off medical benefits or kicked out of subsidized housing and consequently are facing dire situations. Left unassisted, their situations often escalate into homelessness, violence and can compound existing mental-health problems, which ends up costing society a lot more."

Mr. Maclaren would like to see the B.C. government restore legal aid funding to at least 2002 levels, when the budget was $92-million. Last year it was $67-million. The hourly rate for legal aid work in the province is $84 an hour, which compares to the more than $300 an hour that lawyers with a decade more of experience can earn elsewhere in the system.

"If there was more funding for legal aid we could attract more lawyers to poverty law," says Mr. Maclaren. "It would allow lawyers to make a little more money doing it.

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"As it stands now, when you're coming out of law school you can't dedicate yourself to poverty law because there's simply no money in it, so it's left to pro bono lawyers to do that work."

Despite the noble intent, not everyone is crazy about what pro bono lawyers are doing. There are many in the legal profession who feel that if lawyers didn't provide their services for free, it would put pressure on the government to do something about the legal aid emergency. As it is, the government is quite happy to have lawyers address the need by working for nothing.

For Mr. Maclaren, withdrawing the services the society provides is not an option.

"These are people who need our help," he says. "I can't abide making these people sacrificial lambs as part of some plan to force the government to do something that it may not do. It would be a steep price for people to pay."

He's right. No one should be talking about forfeiting people's legal rights in the name of some greater moral imperative. Legal aid, as many have suggested, should be recognized as an essential public service for the poor and those unable to help themselves. It should have been done long ago.

An inclusive justice system has to be one that is equally available to the poor as it is to the rich.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More


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