Engaging the Public on Legal Aid.
by James M. Bond
Legal Aid is in crisis in this province. The funding model for the Legal Services Society doesn’t work and as a result there is simply not enough money to fund the current system. As a result, there are fewer and fewer lawyers (particularly more experienced lawyers) who are willing to take on legal aid cases. Those that do so in any significant way undoubtedly believe it as the right thing to do, not the financially sound thing to do.
The Legal Services Society has cut service areas, cut staff and in the very near future will close offices everywhere but in Vancouver. There has also been an attempt to shift the form of legal aid delivery from a lawyer model to a “self-help” model. The results of “self-help” are being felt in courtrooms across the province. They are being clogged with unrepresented litigants. This increase in unrepresented litigants has put more pressure on the time and resources of judges, the courts and any lawyer who is unlucky enough to be appearing opposite an unrepresented person.
I am often asked what the British Columbia Branch is doing about Legal Aid. When I am asked this, I recite the litany of meetings held with the Legal Services Society, with government and with other stakeholders. I discuss the significant work undertaken by our Legal Aid Committee, the assistance provided by our Government Relations Committee and the hours of deliberation that our Executive Committee and Provincial Council have spent on Legal Aid, particularly in the last year or so. I remind them of the time and money spent on the Legal Aid Test Case. I also ask for suggestions as to other actions that we can undertake. However, I can tell you that when I ask for suggestions, I am more often than not met with confused silence.
It’s not surprising that people don’t have any one single answer to the legal aid crisis. The Legal Aid issue is complex and multi-faceted and so far justice system stakeholders seem to have been unable to capture and hold the government’s attention on this issue.
It’s time to get the public involved in a real and meaningful discussion about Legal Aid in our province – what the framework should be, what should be covered, who should deliver it and how it should be funded. Last spring, a group of justice system stakeholders passed a resolution (which was adopted by the British Columbia Branch) calling on the government to hold an inquiry into the state of Legal Aid in British Columbia.
The British Columbia Branch believes that the answer lies in involving the public in the discussion in a meaningful way and we have therefore decided to act to move this issue forward.
We have begun discussions with other justice system stakeholders to establish a Public Forum on Legal Aid in British Columbia. While it is still in the planning stages, this Public Forum would travel the province and hear from members of the public and others who understand the problems of the current Legal Aid system. It would be funded from non-government sources, but we have invited the government to participate. The British Columbia Branch holds a unique position as a connector of other justice system stakeholders in this province. We look forward to using that position to hear from the public and interested groups and deliver a report to government on the form, content, delivery and funding of Legal Aid in our province. We are confident that once the government has heard from the public on this matter, it will see fit to act on the public’s recommendations.
This article was published in the February 2010 issue of BarTalk. © 2010 The Canadian Bar Association. All rights reserved.