Earlier this month, legal aid lawyers reached an agreement with the provincial government and Legal Services Society to stave off a strike. So, does this mean that the crisis in legal aid has been solved?
In a word: no. Our legal aid system remains in crisis. The current agreement does not guarantee the necessary improvements to our broken legal aid system. What the agreement does include, is a temporary 25% increase in pay for legal aid lawyers—an important step, as legal aid lawyers haven’t had even a cost-of-living increase in 13 years. The agreement with legal aid lawyers will expire in October 2019, leaving just enough time to negotiate a longer-term agreement.
[O]nly those who are wealthy enough to afford a lawyer benefit from the law. This runs contrary to the principles of our democracy and our legal system.
Nearly half of us will experience a legal problem (such as a divorce, dismissal, or an eviction) over a three-year period. Yet, it can be hard for regular people to understand how the legal system works and why changes are so desperately needed.
To help us better understand, here are our top four reasons to care about legal aid—and why we must hold the government to account for ensuring that everyone has access to our legal system.
1. Legal aid in BC is in crisis.
Legal aid in BC is a shell of its former self. In 2002, legal aid was cut by 40% across the board. Poverty law services were eliminated—the system went from assisting 40,000 people a year on poverty law issues to zero. Family law services were cut by 60%, so that only those who are very poor can qualify for services—and even then, usually only when they are leaving violent relationships, and only for minimal hours.
Many people are left representing themselves in family law matters, even those who work full time at minimum wage or have to examine an abusive ex on the stand in order to keep custody of their children.
2. The justice system isn’t just if it’s only accessible to those who can afford it.
Legal rights are meaningless if they only apply to those who can afford access to the courts. We have progressive family laws in BC, yet if people aren’t able to access the advice and representation of a lawyer, they won’t be able to access the protections of the law.
This means that only those who are wealthy enough to afford a lawyer benefit from the law. This runs contrary to the principles of our democracy and our legal system. Equality requires legal aid.
3. Those most impacted by the crisis are women, Indigenous people, migrants, and people living in poverty.
Legal aid is essential to the safety of women in abusive relationships. 70% of the applicants for family law legal aid are women, yet many are turned away. When women who cannot otherwise afford a lawyer are turned down for legal aid, or use up their capped legal aid hours, they are left to represent themselves to seek protection from violence for themselves and their children, and to obtain the necessary court orders about parenting responsibilities where there is risk of abuse. Without legal aid, family disputes often become more protracted and more complex. The longer a family conflict goes on without resolution, the more the risk of serious family violence increases.
The test now is to see whether the government is prepared to put their money where their mouth is to implement a truly rights-based system of legal aid in BC.
Legal aid is also essential to the human rights of Indigenous people who are accused of crimes. Indigenous people are disproportionately represented in the criminal law system. Indigenous women are the fastest growing population in prisons across the country, far outnumbering the percentage of Indigenous women in the overall population. By failing to provide adequate legal aid coverage for people accused of crimes, we are failing to address this gross overrepresentation of Indigenous people in prisons and, more broadly, failing to address the ongoing impacts of colonialism.
Legal aid is also essential to the rights of migrants. While refugee claims rose by 145% over three years, legal aid funding didn’t keep up. Sending a refugee claimant back to their home country can be a matter of life or death-failing to provide them with adequate legal aid to navigate the refugee system is a matter of fundamental human rights.
4. Underfunding legal aid costs us all.
The human costs are significant, and so are the financial costs to the public. As Commissioner Leonard Doust said in the Public Commission on Legal Aid in BC: “short-changing legal aid is a false economy since the costs of unresolved problems are shifted to other government departments in terms of more spending on social and health services, the cost of caring for children in state custody, and so on.”
Cutting funding of legal aid leaves thousands of people with unresolved legal issues, which costs us more in the justice sector, the labour market, the health care system, housing, and social assistance.
Change is long overdue
Years of advocacy have yielded few results. The aversion of the legal aid strike shows that the government will listen if it’s forced to do so. Whether that’s the lawyer strike or our constitutional challenge to the under provision of legal aid, clearly more work needs to be done to draw attention to this important issue—the critical need for services alone doesn’t seem to be enough to push the government to action.
Those at the negotiating table have articulated a commitment to access to justice. The test now is to see whether the government is prepared to put their money where their mouth is to implement a truly rights-based system of legal aid in BC.
Kasari Govender is the Executive Director at West Coast LEAF, and has long advocated for an adequate legal aid system in BC. She is passionate about ensuring that the legal system is equally accessible to all.
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