(Vancouver) It’s time for a complete overhaul of BC’s legal aid system, according to a new report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and West Coast LEAF (Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund).
“Our system is in crisis,” says Alison Brewin, Executive Director of West Coast LEAF and co-author of the study. “Slashing legal aid services only saves money in the very short term. When people lack legal representation, cases are less likely to be resolved outside of court, and can lead to lengthy trials that are extremely costly to the public.”
Rights-Based Legal Aid: Rebuilding BC’s Broken System examines the serious deterioration of legal aid services over the past 15 years, and particularly since deep cuts began in 2002.
Key findings include:
- The number of legal aid cases approved for legal representation declined dramatically between 2001 and 2010: the number of family law cases approved for legal representation dropped from 15,526 to 6,270.
- Representation for poverty law – housing, welfare, disability pensions, debt – has been eliminated.
- BC is now the third lowest province in Canada in per capita spending on legal aid, and our system does not cover many family law issues that other provinces do.
Despite the provincial government’s claims to the contrary, its cuts to legal aid did not end with the 2002-2004 round of deep financial reductions. In 2009 alone, the Legal Services Society of BC (which provides legal aid services) has:
- Closed five regional centres (leaving one in Vancouver and one in Terrace);
- Closed the family law centre;
- Laid off 96 staff;
- Reduced tariffs (payments to lawyers) for family, immigration and criminal law;
- Imposed stricter screening and eligibility for clients; and
- Reduced services for people who cannot access legal representation through LSS, including eliminating the LawLINE and Community Advocate Support Line.
“We need to do much more than just repair the cuts,” says Kasari Govender, study co-author and Legal Director of West Coast LEAF. “We need to re-build the legal aid system with a rights-based approach: all citizens should have the right to legal representation in any case where human dignity is at stake. Legal Services Society has done a pretty good job of providing legal information, but in many cases without representation it’s almost impossible to enforce the rights that you have on paper.”
The study also recommends restoring LSS’s independence from government and funding a mix of specialized legal aid clinics, private lawyers paid through a tariff system and staff lawyers in community-based non-profits.
“Our broken legal aid system leads to enormous social costs,” says Brewin. “Studies from other jurisdictions show that unresolved legal issues, especially family law issues, contribute to poor health (from stress, for example), increased reliance on social programs, unemployment, domestic violence and relationship breakdown.”
“If we don’t fix the legal aid system,” Govender adds, “we’re perpetuating a justice system that’s only accessible to people who are wealthy enough to hire lawyers. This means that only some people in our society can actually exercise the legal rights that should apply to everyone.”
For more information or to arrange an interview with the authors, contact Sarah Leavitt at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, 604-801-5121 x233, or [email protected]. Rights-Based Legal Aid: Rebuilding BC’s Broken System can be downloaded at www.policyalternatives.ca/rights-based-legal-aid.