B.C. lawyers are being urged not to work on legal aid cases next month to protest what some legal advocates are calling a chronic underfunding of the system, possibly leading to empty courtrooms.
"The idea is that we're going to keep judges very unbusy for the month of July," Birgit Eder, a member of the Trial Lawyers Association of B.C.'s legal aid action committee, said in an interview.
Ms. Eder said lawyers in Vancouver, Victoria and Kamloops have been asked not to schedule any legal aid matters for next month.
The committee says the amount of money put into legal aid by government lags far behind other court spending, and that 40 per cent of people accused in criminal court must now represent themselves. It says 90 per cent of people in small-claims court represent themselves, while in family court, it's 95 per cent.
Ms. Eder said it's hard to tell exactly how many lawyers will participate in the service withdrawal, but that lawyers will be outside Vancouver court on the first Monday in July to explain to members of the public why they're not working on legal aid cases.
Ms. Eder said the protest will take a different form in the fall. Starting in October, she said, lawyers will be urged not to work on any legal aid cases during the first week of every month.
She said the goal is to spur the province to put more money into the system.
"We want the [Justice Minister] to sit down with us and negotiate for sustainable, reasonable legal aid funding. She just doesn't. All she says is there's no money for it. We keep demonstrating to her that that's not true," Ms. Eder said.
Len Doust, a prominent lawyer who in 2011 served as commissioner for a report on legal aid in B.C., said he's not surprised by the protest. Mr. Doust said the problems identified by his report have not been addressed in a significant or meaningful way.
"I, among – I know – many others in the legal profession, am extremely disappointed at the lack of regard that the government has paid to the recommendations that I made in the report," he said in an interview.
Mr. Doust's report said B.C.'s legal aid system was "failing the most disadvantaged members of our community." He made nine recommendations in all, including that there should be an increase in stable long-term funding and that legal aid should be recognized as an essential service.
He said lawyers might be accused of trying to "feather their own nest" by pushing for more funds for legal aid, but he said more legal services would also be provided.
Justice Minister Suzanne Anton, in a written statement, said government recognizes the important role legal aid plays in providing services. She said that's why the province increased the Legal Services Society's budget by $2-million this year, to $74.5-million.
She expressed confidence the protest would not bog down the court system.
"If trial lawyers go ahead with the withdrawal of legal aid representation, the Legal Services Society has a plan in place to ensure essential duty counsel services. As in other situations when local counsel is unavailable, the Legal Services Society will make arrangements to bring counsel in from other areas, if necessary," she wrote.
Harold Clark, acting chief executive officer of the Legal Services Society, wrote in an e-mail that it does have one area of concern – cases where duty counsel is needed for people who appear in court on criminal charges in Kamloops and Vancouver and are not being held in custody.
"We have to use some lawyers from outside the community for in-custody duty counsel in Kamloops and Vancouver and we have to pay their travel costs, which means we don't have the budget for out-of-custody duty counsel in those two locations. Some of the people who would normally use out-of-custody duty counsel will qualify for representation, so it's too early to tell what impact this will have," he wrote.
"We will continue to monitor the situation and respond as needed and where budget permits to ensure services are available."
One of the central disagreements between the Trial Lawyers Association and the province involves a tax on legal services instituted in the 1990s. The association says the revenue from that tax was supposed to go directly to legal aid. Ms. Anton said the government of the day had mentioned the tax would help offset the cost of legal aid, but never intended for the money to go directly to legal aid.