NDP ready to freeze legal aid funding as lawyers prepare April 1 strike

‘System has reached a breaking point,’ legal aid lawyers spokesman says

As B.C.’s legal aid lawyers threaten strike action April 1, demanding more money to help underprivileged people get access to justice, the NDP is readying to freeze that funding over the next three years.

“These numbers are frozen,” Association of Legal Aid Lawyers spokesman Richard Fowler said. “The system has reached a breaking point.”

“As a result of cuts and consistent underfunding, legal aid is now in crisis,” said a February association report to Attorney General David Eby.

As a result, the lawyers voted 97 per cent to begin withdrawing services April 1. Withdrawals will increase in scope through May.

The funding numbers are in the 2019-22 service plan of the Legal Services Society (LSS), which administers legal aid in B.C. That plan was released the same day Finance Minister Carole James delivered the 2019 budget as well as the province’s 2019-22 strategic plan.

For 2018-19, the society, which runs the system, received $85.8 million, up from 80.7 million the year before.

However, the funding will stop increasing. The Ministry of Attorney General said government transfers to the society would be 86.8 million for the years 2019-22.

“The service plan shows why we’re taking this action,” Fowler said.

However, neither the Ministry of Finance nor the Ministry of Attorney General will discuss the freeze.

He said if the plan showed the system was anticipating new revenue, the lawyers would be responding much differently.

Eby was not available for comment but a statement from his office said talks with the association are continuing.

In a memorandum to staff, the society said the purpose of the lawyers’ service withdrawal “is to pressure government into increasing LSS’s funding, so that we can increase the rates we pay them to do legal aid work. If they vote to stop taking contracts, it means many legal aid clients will not have the benefit of legal advice and representation.”

The memo said efforts would be made to help the most vulnerable clients. Priority areas of coverage will be cases where children have been or may be removed from a parent, family protection orders, clients who may lose contact with a child and clients in jail and require a bail application.

Fowler confirmed that, praising the society for doing incredible work with scant resources.

“It’s unconscionable that professionals are required every year to provide this quality of work for less and less money,” he said.

But, the lawyers have been unhappy for some time. They say legal aid should be a government priority alongside health care, education, welfare and child protection.

 Indeed, that’s what lawyer Len Doust recommended in his 2011 Report of the Public Commission on Legal Aid in British Columbia.

The association said in the report to Eby, a former activist lawyer with Pivot Legal Society and the BC Civil Liberties Association, that “successive governments have starved the legal aid system of the financial resources it needs to fulfill its essential role in our society.”

An NDP freeze of legal aid funding is nothing new. That’s what happened in 1997 under Premier Glen Clark. Five years later, Gordon Campbell’s Liberals slashed the budget by 40 per cent.

While Doust’s report came out eight years ago, lawyer Jamie Maclaren’s review of the system released in January also calls for funding boosts.

Legal aid is not broken in B.C. It has simply lost its way,” Maclaren said in his report. “Years of underfunding and shifting political priorities have taken their toll on the range and quality of legal aid services, and especially on the people who need them. Still, the will exists in B.C. to make legal aid more accessible and effective for all of its many users.”

The association said the LSS has been able to offer only one raise for legal aid lawyers since 1991. The average hourly rate is now $88, from which lawyers need to pay for their offices and legal support teams.

“This represents about 27-30 per cent of the private law hourly rate, well below the 75 per cent recommended by Ted Hughes in his 1984 B.C. Task Force on Public Legal Services,” the report said.

“By every objective measure the legal aid tariff is fundamentally grossly inadequate,” the association report said.

Legal aid lawyers have long maintained that the provincial government for years has failed to use the tax paid by all people who use legal services in B.C. to fund the legal aid system as was intended when it was introduced in 1992.

“The more than $200 million raised by this tax is enough to fund a legal aid system all of us in British Columbia would be proud of,” the association report said.

The BC Liberals did not respond to a request for comment.