Lawyers plead case for legal aid funds

Lawyers stage protest outside Penticton courthouse calling for the restoration of funding to legal aid

Penticton lawyer John Stoll

Penticton lawyer John Stoll

Penticton lawyers rallied in front of the courthouse on Wednesday calling for change to the legal aid system.

The lawyers said the legal aid system in British Columbia has reached a crucial point, becoming seriously underfunded and leaving behind those in need of help. The movement is calling for the B.C. government to restore legal aid funding to where it was in the early ‘90s.

“Having access to legal counsel in any of our courtrooms is a fundamental right, a human right, an essential service, and the attorney general seems to have no difficulty in dismissing that,” said lawyer John Stoll. “It is just deteriorating to the point where I quit doing legal aid cases by referral because I just can’t do it anymore. I just can’t afford it and that is after 36 years of practice and that is a tragedy.”

In September, lawyers from across the province decided to take part in a scheduled withdrawal of services, refusing to accept adult criminal duty counsel. Escalating withdrawals will start in January, with one week growing to withdrawal of services for the whole month of April. Penticton jumped ahead on the action and has already had random weeks of action and will join the provincewide campaign in January.

Penticton and Area Women’s Centre advocacy outreach worker Reasha Wolfe said they serve a lot of people that need legal aid, whether it is family law, immigration law or landlord-tenant issues.

“Without these services there is nowhere to support them, so then they end up swamping the offices of non-profit societies who don’t have the resources to help them,” said Wolfe.

“These people don’t know this is happening because they are so busy just getting by day to day, figuring out what they are going to eat and how they are going to dress their children. They don’t have time to even think about these things until they go looking for services and then they find they are not there.”

Jack Kruger, native court worker in Penticton, said it costs $100,000 per year to keep a person in provincial jail, and increasing funding to legal aid to provide proper court services could mean less people behind bars. Kruger said he also has concerns about the Conservatives pushing through changes to the crime bill because it means increasing jail sentences, and without the lawyers to fill the need, even more people will trickle into institutions.

“The government is putting money into policing, money into building more jails and prisons, but they aren’t putting money into the court system. And in your typical criminal case how do you get from somebody getting arrested to ether being acquitted or potentially going to jail? You have to go through the court system. By starving it out they’re creating a situation where there is no efficiency, delays and criminal cases dismissed daily across the province,” said Penticton lawyer Michael Welsh.

The lawyers’ fight to restore legal aid has some support within the B.C. Crown Counsel Association.

“We are very sympathetic,” said Samiran Lakshman, president of the association. “We recognize the essence of our system is to have two equal opposing forces in a search for the truth, and when we don’t have that the system breaks down. A lack of representation means a lack of justice for not only the person represented but the whole system.”

Lakshman sees challenges during the days of action coming from bail hearings on criminal matters, which have to happen within 24 hours of arrest. He also agrees not having proper legal aid counsel will create “enormous delays” because an unrepresented person is not proficient with the legal system.

The Ministry of Attorney General put out a release this week stating the government recognizes the importance of legal aid support and has maintained core basic legal aid funding at $66.5 million this year, and has done so since 2005. In 2010 legal aid provided representation to nearly 28,000 low-income individuals and, according to the government, non-contribution eligibility for legal aid in B.C. is among the most generous in Canada.