Attorney-general Barry Penner has tossed cold water on a call for more government funding for legal aid in the province, which a hard-hitting report found was failing to meet “even the most basic needs” of British Columbians.
The report, authored by veteran, prominent lawer Len Doust, pointed to government funding cutbacks for the situation, noting that B.C, once a leader in the provision of legal aid, is now lagging behind other jurisdictions.
As a starting point, Mr. Doust recommended that the government should restore $47-million to legal aid services in order to bring funds to where they were in 2002.
But Mr. Penner said there is not an unending supply of taxpayers’ money.
“Virtually every other ministry, outside health and education, have had their spending reduced, as we struggle to balance the budget,” he said.
“Interest groups all say they’d like to see more money spent by governments on legal aid, but the public has a reluctance to spend more on taxes.”
Mr. Doust was appointed last year to head a public commission on legal aid. The process was funded by numerous legal organizations, including the Law Society of B.C., the BC Crown Counsel Association and the B.C. branch of the Canadian Bar Association.
His report, released Tuesday, was highly critical of the current state of legal aid in B.C.
“Over the past decade or so, the gap between legal aid needs and services has grown into a wide chasm, resulting in human suffering and related social and economic costs borne by our community,” said Mr. Doust.
Among his recommendations to revive legal aid services, Mr. Doust called on the government to recognize legal aid as an essential public service and to increase its “long term, stable funding.”
Mr. Penner, however, contended that holding the current legal aid budget at $70-million was a victory of sorts, given cuts in other areas.
Further, the attorney-general challenged Mr. Doust’s finding that legal aid in British Columbia is failing to meet the needs of its citizens.
“I think it’s a very broad statement, and I think legal aid works well for a significant number of people that require it,” Mr. Penner said.
“Undoubtedly, there are ways we can do better, and that’s one of the things we’re going to be looking to do.”
Mr. Doust, who has acted as a special prosecutor in many high-profile trials, including Air India, detailed a litany of cutbacks to legal aid over the past decade.
Beginning in 2002, the provincial government reduced legal aid’s budget by close to 40 per cent over three years, resulting in the closing of 45 branch offices. The offices were replaced by seven regional centres, which have now been reduced to two, according to his report. At the same time, poverty and family law services were eliminated.
“Additional reductions in service occurred in 2009 – on top of what was then an unsustainable and highly volatile legal aid system,” said Mr. Doust.
“I cannot come to any conclusion other than the services provided in British Columbia today are too little, their longevity or consistency too uncertain.”
Despite his more than 40 years as a lawyer and “fair share” of legal aid cases, Mr. Doust said he was shocked by the compelling stories he heard during province-wide hearings last year.
“I have come to a much deeper appreciation wreaked by the absence of legal assistance and representation. ...We can no longer avoid the fact that we are failing the most disadvantaged members of our community, those for whom legal aid exists in our province.”
Mr. Doust said legal aid is more than just a service to help hard-up individuals charged with crimes.
Timely legal aid can often significantly reduce the strain on health care and social assistance, he said.
Legal aid is also essential in family and poverty law matters, such as debt, access to social assistance, workers’ compensation and “ruthless and unscrupulous landlords,” Mr. Doust said.
The service is also critical for refugee applicants, he added.
“The fairness of this process depends absolutely upon adequate representation and the stakes are high, including risk of life, family separation, and possible return to a country to which a refugee may have no connection whatsoever or may face serious wrongful political persecution.”
Defending his call for legal aid to be fully funded as an essential public service, Mr. Doust said it’s a key ingredient for a just society.
“[Yet] our legal aid system is failing the people of British Columbia. ... Every day many people struggle and fail to gain the necessary services to the justice system in order to enforce or defend their rights and to benefit from protections guaranteed to them by law.”
He said community organizations, lawyers and legal foundations have had to scramble to fill the legal aid void with “often heroic” individual efforts.
“The days of scrambling must come to an end,” Mr. Doust declared in his comprehensive, 61-page report.