Legal aid in B.C.—already a service fraught with unrelenting demand from the low-income and marginalized population it is designed to serve—is about to get worse. Dozens of lawyers in Vancouver and Kamloops plan to strike for the month of July to protest 20 years of underfunding by the provincial government.
MEGA-NEWS: Legal aid lawyers to strike next month
On May 26, Attorney General Suzanne Anton announced a $2 million budget increase for the Legal Services Society, which provides legal aid in the province, bringing annual funding to $74.5 million. But the Trial Lawyers Association of British Columbia says legal aid funding is still at least $20 million below the inflation rate.
“This has been an ongoing struggle,” says Bentley Doyle, director of communications for the association. He says government could fix the issue by putting the $140 million generated annually by legal services tax into legal aid. But so far government has refused.
Underfunding has meant increased restrictions on who qualifies for legal aid, as well as an overall reduction in the services provided. Now, only people facing possible jail time who also meet low-income requirements are eligible to get a lawyer. Civil cases, including family law issues like divorce, custody disputes, and child support, do not qualify for legal aid unless a child is endangered.
“If you’re facing a significant charge that’s not likely to result in jail time, you’re probably not going to have a lawyer,” says Doyle. That’s led to a rise in legal self-representation among the many people unable to afford a lawyer at market rate, he says, which can delay court proceedings.
At least 75 legal aid lawyers in Vancouver and a yet-unknown number in Kamloops will participate in the strike in July. During that time, lawyers will no longer accept new clients. Plus, ongoing cases will face delays.
Then, in October, one-week-per-month strikes will begin until, as Doyle describes it, “a significant and ongoing commitment by the government [to] take the stress off the system by adding services” back to legal aid is reached.