Low wages eroding access to justice, says lawyers union

Legal Services Society lawyers and support staff stage one-day job action

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At the beginning of last week, B.C.’s Ministry of the Attorney General issued a press release “Celebrating Access to Justice Week 2019” to support an event run by three B.C. law schools aimed at increasing legal-aid availability for British Columbians. But strike notice issued by Legal Services Society (LSS) unionized staff lawyers and their representative Professional Employees Association (PEA) last Monday likely did just the opposite.

The 26 mostly female and Indigenous lawyers administer the legal-aid system, review appeal applications, provide legal information to the public and develop legal-aid system policy.

They are also the first point of contact for people seeking legal aid.

The strike notice was issued after the PEA and the ministry were unable to reach an agreement on compensation. 

But for the LSS, this is more than a dollars-and-cents issue.

According to the PEA, it will become increasingly difficult for the LSS to attract and retain lawyers or get them to serve rural areas of the province without higher compensation.

In March, Attorney General David Eby agreed to a 25% wage increase for 1,000 legal-aid contract lawyers that do not include LSS staff.

Additional pay raises over the next three years were also introduced for the contract lawyers earlier this month. But the 26 LSS lawyers argue that the 2% annual increase over the next three years being offered is not enough.

Scott McCannell, PEA’s executive director, said the increased pay discrepancy between LSS lawyers and contract lawyers will make it even harder to persuade lawyers to work for the LSS rather than do contract work, which will further erode the society’s ability to perform its role.

Out of the 10 provinces, B.C. is last in per capita legal-aid funding, according to McCannell, who ties the lower wage increase for LSS workers to B.C.’s declining legal-aid funding.

“There’s a history of underfunding, and the majority of that happened under the previous government,” said McCannell. “The current government has taken some modest steps to address that, but that’s only part of the solution.”

However, Eby said the NDP government has invested a record amount of money into access-to-justice initiatives and legal-aid services with the highest increase in funding in 16 years.

“One of the things British Columbians are going to see following the work of our government is that they are able to access legal advice to resolve legal disputes quicker.”

Eby added that the large pay increase for legal-aid contract lawyers makes up for 13 years of stagnant wages under the previous BC Liberal government. Wages for LSS workers, who have been under a functioning collective bargaining agreement, have not suffered the same stagnation.

The strike action was a one-day walkout at the LSS’s head office in downtown Vancouver. McCannell said the LSS and its lawyers have a deep commitment to access to justice and legal aid. He doesn’t expect any impact on courthouses, because PEA members will continue to staff other offices around the province.

“We want to make a point with the government to demonstrate our members’ resolve and commitment,” said McCannell. “But we also want to create an opportunity for the parties to come back together.”