Province announces $7.9 million to develop legal aid framework

Lawyers looking forward to fix for “very much neglected legal aid system”

B.C.’s NDP government has announced $7.9 million for the development of a new framework for legal aid funding in the province.

The announcement comes 72 hours before legal aid lawyers have threatened to begin withdrawing services generally used by the province’s less fortunate.

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The government will provide $4 million while the government-funded Legal Services Society, which operates the legal aid system, will provide $3.9 million, Attorney General David Eby said.

The money will be administered by the Law Foundation of B.C.

Eby said the foundation would work with government, the society and the Association of Legal Aid Lawyers to allocate the money.

“We recognize there is work to be done to improve the legal aid system both for British Columbians and the counsel that represent them in court,” Eby said. “Legal aid lawyers provide services to some of the most vulnerable members of the province, and we will continue to work with LSS to address the historical underfunding of legal aid.”

Eby said the government and the society would continue to negotiate with the Association of Legal Aid Lawyers to reach an agreement for long-term, sustainable system funding.

“We appreciate the recognition by government of the important work our members do for vulnerable British Columbians, and look forward to negotiations that will provide a solution to a very much neglected legal aid system,” the lawyers’ association said in a statement released by the government.

Eby said the grant is in addition to the $26 million over three years in increased funding to LSS already announced by government to support the provision of criminal, family and civil legal aid services.​

The society’s overall funding numbers are in the society’s 2019-22 service plan. That plan was released the same day Finance Minister Carole James delivered the 2019 budget as well as the province’s 2019-22 strategic plan.

For 2018-19, the society received $85.8 million, up from $80.7 million the year before.

The Ministry of Attorney General said government transfers to the society would be 86.8 million for the years 2019-22.

Earlier this month, independent lawyer Jamie McLaren made 25 recommendations to Eby for improving B.C.’s legal aid system – including legal clinics, a targeted criminal law aid system and expanded availability of lawyers for families.

“Legal aid is not broken in B.C. It has simply lost its way,” McLaren said in his report. “Years of underfunding and shifting political priorities have taken their toll on the range and quality of legal aid services, and especially on the people who need them. Still, the will exists in B.C. to make legal aid more accessible and effective for all of its many users.”

Other recommendations include:

• Developing and launching an online client portal to accept legal aid applications, to diagnose and treat clients’ legal problems, and to empower clients in the active management of their own cases;

• Engaging the Office of the Auditor General to perform a value-for-money audit of society operations;

• Broadening the scope of Indigenous legal aid services to include more preventative services that are not premised on agreeing to state intervention or correction, which impose stigma;

• Creating a Child Protection Clinic to help parents before child protection concerns reach the level of Ministry of Children & Family Development intervention, and to serve as a practice resource centre for lawyers representing parents in contested child protection matters;

• Creating a Criminal Resource Centre at the Criminal Law Office offering free access to tariff lawyers, pro bono lawyers and other legal aid service providers, and provides space for co-working and training as well as resources for legal research and practice management, and :

• Developing a major case team of society staff lawyers and paralegals to provide in-house capacity and to support tariff lawyer capacity for long and complex criminal case work.

 

Reporter Jeremy Hainsworth can be contacted at jhainsworth@glaciermedia.ca

 

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