I — along with a whole lot of other British Columbians — have been stewing away about the abrupt end to the BC Rail trial, and the decision to let David Basi and Bob Virk completely off the hook for $6 million in legal fees. Politics of the matter aside, what really gets me is the appalling contrast between this largess on the part of the Special Prosecutor and the government's denial of access to justice to so many other British Columbians.
Take for example the single-mindedness with which the province pursues welfare overpayments. As the BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre (BCPIAC) has extensively documented, the Ministry of Housing and Social Development has tried to take hundreds of welfare recipients to court in recent years in an attempt to recover benefits paid in error or through alleged fraud.
Setting aside the fact that most of these cases don't stand up to scrutiny, and the fact that our government is spending money chasing after people whose incomes range between about $600 and $1,300 per month, what's ironic in relation to the BC Rail trial is that these very welfare recipients are not eligible for legal aid. That's because the provincial government eliminated poverty law legal aid during its slashing of civil legal aid funding in 2002-04. (Poverty law legal aid used to be available to low-income British Columbians for help with legal problems related to housing, welfare benefits, debts, disability pensions, etc.)
So unlike the Basi-Virk duo, these welfare recipients have to make do without the help of a publicly-funded lawyer, despite the fact that, according to BCPIAC, many have barriers to comprehending and effectively responding to legal proceedings, including poverty, disabilities, literacy, and language barriers.
And it's not just poverty law legal aid that's been cut. Access to family law legal aid has also been severely restricted, to the point of systematically denying women who can't afford a lawyer access to justice. According to West Coast LEAF Executive Director Alison Brewin, the results have been devastating. In an article published by LEAF and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, she said:
"Without adequate legal representation, women are losing custody of their children, giving up valid legal rights to support, and being victimized through litigation harassment. They are spending endless days navigating a complex legal system researching and preparing legal documents, appearing without a lawyer for highly charged divorce and custody cases, and agreeing to settlements that are not in their own or their children's interests."
She wrote that article in 2004 before the latest rounds of cuts. Things have gotten so bad that six of the province's most prominent legal organizations (including the Law Foundation of BC, the Law Society of BC and the Canadian Bar Association's BC Branch) launched a Public Commission on Legal Aid this fall, in a bid to draw attention to the inadequacies of BC's legal aid system and develop recommendations on how to fix it.
To put the $6 million cost of the Basi-Virk legal fees in context: it is equivalent to nearly nine percent of the 2009/10 provincial government grant to the Legal Services Society (which provides legal aid in BC). Or about 3,666 funded legal aid cases.
There is something very wrong here. If only the thousands of people who need but can't access legal aid could just send their lawyers' bills to a special prosecutor.
Shannon Daub works as Communications Director with the CCPA's BC Office.