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Restoring (some) funding to legal aid in B.C.

While legal aid lawyers in Ontario grapple with massive cuts to funding, after years of gutting in British Columbia, some see positive change on the western horizon. But how much will it take for it to dig itself out of its hole?

Dollar Sign Disolve

Under the NDP government, Attorney General Dave Eby granted that B.C. may be the last one standing in the current political climate.

Eby has a long history of working with people who can’t access justice, as the former head of the B.C. Civil Liberties Union and several years of working in the Downtown Eastside.

“It’s an exciting time for access to justice and legal in the province; considering it’s been about 17 years for any significant change,” he said, referring to the number of years the Liberal government has been in power.

Eby said an “historic” bargaining process is underway with the Association of Legal Aid Lawyers (ALL).  Just a few weeks ago, Eby averted a strike by hashing out a last-minute deal that included a 25 per cent boost for legal aid lawyers in an interim arrangement. 

That sentiment also comes after the A.G.’s office commissioned a report on legal aid service delivery in British Columbia, “Roads to Revival,” by Jamie Maclaren, Q.C. Maclaren is the Executive Founding Director of Vancouver’s Access Pro Bono since 2005.

Released in March, the report’s mandate was not looking for a philosophical review of case law but a guide on how they could stretch every dollar, Maclaren said. He operates in the trenches of the clients in B.C. most in need, along with several hundred volunteer pro bono lawyers.

“Despite cuts to Ontario legal aid, B.C.’s legal aid plan has been starved for a few decades now, so there’s a real difference in the scope and effectiveness of B.C.’s legal aid plan compared to Ontario’s and Alberta’s.

Prior to 2002 in B.C. for example, specialty clinics in poverty law were in place. Now $2 million will be going to opening clinics across the province in collaboration with the Law Foundation of B.C.

Eby also said that $28 million will be going toward Indigenous Access to Justice over three years—a recommendation that received a “highest priority” designation in the report.

Other priorities among the 25 recommendations include creating child protection clinics to help parents before concerns have reached ministry intervention; and to fund and support an integrated network of independent community legal aid clinics with teams of lawyers and advocates providing poverty law services.   

“Using Jamie’s roadmap, his findings reinforced specialty clinics,” Eby said. “I’m a big believer in legal advocates who can be present with a client and walk them through the process.”

Maclaren says that, in a year, 20,000 people are approaching his pro bono office for service and volunteers are able to handle about 8,000 cases — 40 per cent. The other 60 per cent don’t qualify because they make too much money and the biggest unmet needs are in family.

Raising the threshold of eligibility is an important part of the bargaining process for ALL, as the financial cut-off is currently under the poverty line. Growing financial inequality finds more and more people ineligible for legal aid or the ability to afford a layer.

Kim Hawkins is the executive director of Rise Women’s Legal Centre. She said, in family law cases, lawyers get 35 hours of prep time, which is often not enough to resolve all legal issues, especially if a trial is required, and even then funding is reserved for high conflict cases.

“We frequently see women give up on their economic entitlements because they can’t get help fighting for them,” Hawkins said. “Marginalized women are in an even worse situation. Many lawyers and judges do not receive any training into the dynamics of family violence, and we still speak to women whose previous lawyers have actually advised them not to raise it.”

Critics of the report cite a lack of dollar amounts tied to the recommendations; how much legal aid lawyers are getting paid; and determining the scope of eligibility and coverage for legal aid.

Maclaren says the difficulty in incorporating change to take on some of his recommendations comes from the conservative nature of the law and legal precedence. And currently across the country, there’s not much political incentive to fund the most indigent people in general as the economic and political winds shift in Canada.   

But for the first steps of funding toward legal aid in B.C., he says there is still a big hole to climb out of.

“It’s pretty plain to see in B.C. in terms of how people who live on the margins of society are treated compared to how they used to be treated; it’s getting worse, not better. Despite recent reinvestment in legal aid, it’s helpful but has a long way to go. It’s been two decades at least of starving and diminishing its scope and effectiveness. We can’t play catch-up in two or three years.”