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Undernourished legal aid system needs funds

Shirley Bond, Minister of Justice and Attorney General in Surrey March 21, 2012 before a signing the new federal-provincial RCMP Contract Agreement.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Ask the head of the Legal Services Society to describe the state of legal aid in British Columbia and his answer is "struggling."

From 1994 to 2009, as the Provincial Court and prosecution services saw budget increases of 114 per cent and 132 per cent respectively, legal aid funding dropped 22 per cent. In 2002, following a round of funding cuts, the society reduced office and agency staff by 74 per cent. The number of lawyers willing to take legal aid cases has dropped from nearly 1,800 in 1997 to less than 1,000 in 2010, due to comparatively low pay.

And so, with some of B.C.'s most vulnerable residents at risk, Attorney-General Shirley Bond asked the society earlier this year to submit ideas for justice-system reform – and executive director Mark Benton leaped at the opportunity.

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The society's report – released last week, alongside Geoffrey Cowper's broader justice-system review – calls for more duty counsel, more community-based family-law advice services, and greater use of problem-solving courts, such as domestic-violence courts.

Ms. Bond has not said which recommendations she will implement. Last week she said she would hold off on writing a cheque. Her ministry is expected to release its own report this fall.

The society was told to look for ways to reduce justice-system costs, so the money could be reallocated to legal aid. In an interview, however, Mr. Benton said unless money is made available up front, the society's recommendations won't move forward.

"We cannot do any of these without a cash infusion at the beginning," he said. "We have really squeezed every dime from the last decade to try to get dollars out of services. We don't have any capacity to do more at this point."

Mr. Benton said the society believes small, strategic investments can save money across the sector.

"We think that by focusing on early resources, right up at the front, you can get a lot of those cases right out of the system," he said. "What happens when the cases stay in the system longer is that problems actually kind of fester. The cases cost us more the longer they're in the system."

When asked what it would cost to implement all of the society's recommendations, Mr. Benton said approximately $5-million, though he said some elements could be scaled back depending on need.

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The society's report said having more duty counsel available would mean more early resolutions. It also recommended greater use of video services to cut down on transportation costs, and the hiring of outreach workers to help people access the justice system and provide advice.

The report went on to look at drug courts, mental-health courts and first nations courts and said they can spark better outcomes for both offenders and victims. It said a Yukon domestic-violence court has led to quicker cases and fewer collapsed trials.

"If more problem-solving courts were established in B.C., [the society] could provide specialized duty counsel services under our current or expanded model to support those courts," the report said.

Last December, the B.C. government boosted legal-aid funding by $2-million a year, though critics said that wasn't enough.

In his report, Mr. Cowper said an increase in legal aid funding "would be money well spent," though he stopped short of recommending it.

At a news conference Thursday, Ms. Bond announced plans for a $1.5-million justice-access centre at the Victoria courthouse. The Attorney-General said the centre will assist those seeking help with family and civil law. The facility is slated to open in the fall of 2013.

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