VANCOUVER – Legal aid lawyers who have withdrawn services to protest what they say is a severely underfunded system donned their black robes outside provincial court in Vancouver, saying the B.C. government is failing to meet the needs of the province’s most vulnerable citizens.
Members of the Trial Lawyers Association of BC, who stopped taking new cases on the weekend, said Monday that government funding for legal aid has remained the same for 23 years despite inflation and population growth.
As a result, two-thirds of people who cannot afford a lawyer are denied legal assistance, they said.
“Now, we have almost 95 per cent of people in our family courts unrepresented,” said Birgit Eder with the association’s legal aid action committee.
“Single moms cannot get a lawyer. They are expected to go up against former spouses who very often can afford to pay a lawyer. So one side has a lawyer because they have money, and the other side has to fumble through on their own because legal aid has no money for a lawyer for them.”
Eder told reporters that roughly 40 per cent of people who are accused of criminal offences are forced to fend for themselves in court because they can’t afford a lawyer.
She said the government currently provides $56 million a year for legal aid. The association is pushing for the government to increase that amount from a tax on lawyers’ fees that was introduced in B.C. in the early 1990s.
Revenue from the tax, which generated about $150 million last year, was always meant to go solely towards legal aid, Eder said.
But Justice Minister Suzanne Anton refuted that claim.
“There is a general misunderstanding that provincial sales tax collected on legal services is being misdirected to general revenue,” she said in a written statement.
“When the provincial sales tax was applied to legal services in B.C. in 1992, the government of the day did reference that the revenue from the tax would offset the escalating costs of legal aid. However, the tax was never designated to directly fund legal aid. The provincial sales tax collected on legal services is no different from any other good or taxable service. The revenue goes directly to government general revenues, which fund all ministries of government including the Ministry of Justice.”
Anton said the government hiked the Legal Services Society’s budget by $2 million this year, to $74.5 million.
Eder said some of that funding actually comes from the federal government.
New Democrat Attorney General critic Leonard Krog said the $74.5 million is nowhere near what the legal aid budget was more than a decade ago, when it was between $92 million and $93 million.
He criticized the Liberal government for aiming to cut expenditures at the expense of low-income British Columbians.
“When you’ve got two-thirds of the people who actually even apply are denied, that doesn’t begin to address the issue of those who don’t even bother to apply because they know there’s no hope,” he said. “If you’re low income, your chances of getting legal aid the way we knew it in this province are very, very slim indeed.”
Members of the Trial Lawyers Association are vowing to refuse all new cases until early August.
Eder said more action is planned for October unless the government increases funding, but Anton said the government will bring in lawyers from other areas if necessary to ensure essential legal services are available.