The Power of Perspectives

The Canadian Bar Association

Kim Covert

Legal aid just one piece of the access-to-justice puzzle

October 8 2013 8 October 2013

A last-minute agreement with the province means British Columbia legal aid lawyers won’t have to make good on their threat to start applying to adjourn cases due to a lack of funding.

Attorney General Suzanne Anton says all legal aid bills will be paid for the remainder of the year.

The B.C. Legal Services Society had been recommending that lawyers avoid booking legal aid hearings from Feb. 17 through March 31, the end of the fiscal year, because of funding shortfalls.

“At the moment, we are facing increases in our criminal and child protection representation costs," executive director Mark Benton said back in August, citing factors such as changes to federal law and provincial efforts to reduce backlogs in the courts.

"Our projection is that unless additional revenue is available or services costs are reduced, LSS will face a $2.5-million overspend for criminal services and $500,000 in child protection services," Benton said.

While the agreement reached with the Attorney General fixes the immediate problem, Anton says she’s committed to balancing the books, which leaves the province’s legal aid service between a rock and a hard place: reduce the fees they pay lawyers or tighten eligibility requirements – or services offered – even more.

The situation in British Columbia serves to underscore the need for the work on access to justice being carried out by the Canadian Bar Association and by the Action Committee on Access to Justice in Civil and Family Matters, led by Justice Thomas Cromwell.

The Action Committee report, A Roadmap for Change, released Oct. 8, says “the civil and family justice system is too complex, too slow and too expensive. It is too often incapable of producing just outcomes that are proportional to the problems brought to it or reflective of the needs of the people it is meant to serve.”

Research and funding is one of the three main areas for reform identified in the report, with a need to “promote coherent, integrated and sustained funding strategies.”

The CBA report, Reaching Equal Justice, will be published later this fall. A summary released in August at the CBA Legal Conference in Saskatoon, also identifies justice system funding as a problem – only about one per cent of government budgets is spent on the justice system, excluding policing and corrections.

On legal aid, the CBA report says, “The reduction in federal spending overall, increased complexity in the substantive law and growing demands for criminal legal aid have placed pressure on legal aid providers to ration services – in a way often inconsistent with the general purpose and public policy values underlying the program.”

The report recommends harnessing technology to make justice more accessible, as well as establishing triage systems to make sure everyone gets the help they need. It also sets a target of 2020 for establishing national benchmarks for legal aid coverage, eligibility and quality of legal services, and wants to see that “the federal government is fully engaged in ensuring an equal, inclusive justice system” by 2025.

Both reports stress that a collaborative approach is needed to bridge the gaps in access to justice in Canada.

“What is needed is major, sustained and collaborative system-wide change – in the form of cultural and institutional innovation, research and funding-based reform,” the National Action Committee report says.

We know what needs to be done. Let’s get started.

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