Penticton lawyers join fight for legal aid funding

Lawyers not providing any adult criminal duty counsel services for the first week of January

Some Penticton trial lawyers have taken an early stance on a provincewide movement beginning in January targeting a lack of legal aid funding.

“There will be an escalating series of duty council withdrawals starting in January. Some lawyers in Penticton are doing job action ahead of that,” said Bentley Doyle, communications director for the Trial Lawyers Association of B.C.

Starting in January, a provincewide campaign is set to begin with lawyers not providing any adult criminal duty counsel services for the first week of the month. This will escalate, adding an extra week each month, until April when they will not provide services for all 30 days. Doyle said a meeting was held by the Trial Lawyers Association of British Columbia in September where lawyers got together and decided on the action.

“What we want is the B.C. government to restore legal aid funding to where it was in the early ’90s. There was far more services covered for citizens in need today. In many family law cases they don’t have coverage in many criminal cases they don’t have legal aid coverage,” said Doyle. “In the early ’90s the B.C. government brought in a provincial sales tax on legal fees. That money was supposed to go to fund legal aid and it was not put in there, it was never put in there. That is upwards of $100 million a year that is collected that does not go to fund legal aid and it should.”

Doyle calls duty counsel, “lawyers on the front lines.” These are lawyers called in to represent low-income people that may have been arrested overnight or are held in custody and don’t have representation. Duty counsel provides immediate legal assistance.

Doyle said while provincial court judges have received pay increases and Crown counsel salaries rose, the tariff for duty counsel has not increased since 1991. He argues given inflation by 2005, it is an equivalent to $63, and that is a 21 per cent pay decrease.

“Basically the ministry operates with the budget they have and say there is no more money for this issue. Roughly the ministry is funding it to a tune of $60 million a year. To get it back to restored levels that it should have never left you would need about $100 million a year,” said Doyle.

Veteran lawyer Leonard Doust led the Public Commission on Legal Aid released in March. The result of his report, Foundations for Change, suggests federal and provincial funding cuts have left the system unable to meet basic needs and it’s the working poor and marginalized people who suffer most. Doust said legal aid should be an essential service and laid out recommendations including making more people eligible and giving legal aid workers better pay and support.

Doyle said when the escalating action days begin it is going to slow down the whole judicial system, one that is already bogged down because of lack of court time and a shortage of judges. In Penticton, counsel from another area in the province swooped in on their days of action and worked the legal aid cases.

“By and large we are hearing there is support across the province from lawyers. I’m no a lawyer, I am a communications director, but if they were my colleagues I would have some bad feelings about them. I can’t look at them lawyer to lawyer and say what are you doing? But I find it very frustrating and I think a lot of lawyers are going to be very upset if that happens,” said Doyle.

Lawyers have been asked to pin a blue ribbon on their lapels on Nov. 30 and walk out during their noon hour break to draw attention to their cause.