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B.C. lawyers to plan next steps in protest over funding

Lawyers in B.C. have engaged in a series of protests by withdrawing services as duty counsel in adult criminal cases.

Daniel Hayduk/The Canadian Press/Daniel Hayduk/The Canadian Press

Lawyers who have withdrawn some of their services in a protest over legal funding will meet Tuesday to discuss additional strategies, including potentially withdrawing services for family law.

"That's been a discussion over the last few meetings – there's just not a clearly defined next stage set yet," Bentley Doyle, a spokesman for the Trial Lawyers Association of B.C., said on Monday.

Under a campaign co-ordinated by the TLABC, lawyers around the province have engaged in a series of protests by withdrawing services as duty counsel – lawyers who sign up to provide legal advice and services at courthouses for people facing charges – in adult criminal cases.

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Lawyers involved in the action are now talking about how and whether to broaden that campaign.

Lawyers withdrew services for a week in January, two weeks in February and three weeks in March. The campaign is scheduled to run for all of April. Not all lawyers are taking part, but the withdrawals have affected about 50 of more than 75 courthouses around the province, Mr. Doyle said.

In a statement provided by staff, Attorney-General Shirley Bond said "courtrooms are open and court cases are operating during the duty counsel service withdrawal."

In April, about 70 per cent of in-custody accused will be handled by in-person duty counsel on any given day at up to 22 locations, the statement said, with 13 of those locations having in-person duty counsel every day, including Vancouver, North Vancouver, Surrey, Victoria, Kelowna and Prince George.

The Legal Services Society, which provides legal aid in the province, will make telephone duty counsel available in communities where lawyers are not available in person.

The province provides more than $68-million a year to legal aid in B.C., including an additional $2.1-million in annual funding that was recently approved, Ms. Bond said, adding that "we continue to look at investing resources where appropriate."

The province is also reviewing legal aid as part of its broader Justice Reform Initiatives, which were launched last month.

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The TLABC maintains no further studies or reviews are required, citing a 2011 report by Vancouver lawyer Leonard Doust that found B.C.'s legal-aid system had suffered from a series of funding shifts and cutbacks and was "failing to meet even the basic needs of British Columbians."

Fewer than 1,000 of B.C.'s 10,000 practising lawyers take legal-aid referrals and that number has declined over the past 15 years, primarily as a result of low fees for the work, the Legal Services Society says.

In an interview Monday, the society's executive director Mark Benton said he hoped the service withdrawals would not be broadened to affect family cases.

"I think that that would have little or no impact on government, and would place children and families at risk in a way that would be unacceptable," Mr. Benton said.

While lawyers are discussing potential next steps, those would not occur until later in the spring, Mr. Doyle said.

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About the Author
National correspondent

Based in Vancouver, Wendy Stueck has covered technology and business and now reports on British Columbia issues including natural resources, aboriginal issues and urban affairs. More

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