The term ‘Legal Aid’ encompasses a large range of areas – what areas are actually receiving the funding?

As you may recall, way back 3 years ago in March of 2019, legal aid lawyers had planned a job action to strike. They planned to begin to limit or suspend the services of the 590 Lawyers who provide legal aid services on April 1. 

The main reason is that due to cutbacks over 3 decades, they could no longer do the job adequately or even recruit enough lawyers to provide services. In 28 years, they had had one pay raise to their hourly rate in 2006. The strike was averted by the Ministry promising to assess and address the issues raised by the Legal Aid lawyers. Between December 2019 and June 2021, the Ministry of the AG looked into the legal aid system, in conjunction with Legal Aid BC and the Association of Legal Aid Lawyers.

So, they actually asked the people working in the legal aid system to inform them of the gaps. As a result of the findings, which did take 3 years, the government announced an 8.19 million investment into the legal aid system. They say it is in the 2022 budget and will mostly fund Legal Aid BC (7.5 million). Legal Aid BC will use these funds to pay and better train lawyers to provide work on behalf of British Columbians who qualify for legal aid. Legal Aid is free legal services for family law, child protection, immigration, and criminal matters.

 

What gaps is this funding meant to address?

 It is meant first to attract and pay lawyers to do the job – free legal services mean nothing if there are no lawyers. Second, it is meant to allow junior lawyers to be trained in complex matters, ensuring the future of legal aid services as time goes on, not just now.

For example, legal aid funds were so short and lawyers so scarce that on a serious trial like murder or manslaughter, only one senior lawyer would be assigned to represent the accused. In ordinary circumstances, senior lawyers always have a junior lawyer participate in the trials as second chair so they gain experience, assist the senior lawyer with the workload, and eventually when they become a senior lawyer themselves, they have experience and the skills necessary to handle these big cases as well. This is paramount for the administration of justice to have competent and skilled representation for the people. In the past, legal aid couldn’t pay for that junior lawyer and so the senior lawyer, at a very low rate of pay, would have to run the whole trial themselves and the benefit of learning and experience would never be afforded to junior lawyers. When the senior lawyers retire, burn out or move on to higher-paying work, there was no one to fill their shoes. Now, these new funds will pay for junior lawyers to assist in serious trials. The funds will also pay for the accused to call expert witnesses to prove their case, which levels the playing field and makes trials more fair. 

The funds will also pay for support for families navigating the court system. More funds will be invested in what is called the ‘criminal early resolution contract’ which began in May 2019 also as a result of the outcry by legal aid lawyers in BC to provide legal advice and support to a whole new group of clients who are close but still do not qualify for the usual legal aid program. There is a shorter form of assistance that now benefits that group to have legal advice and assistance.

Finally, an additional $750,000 will go to the Society of Children and Youth – there is an expanding need for legal services for youth and children and an expansion of a legal clinic for that purpose is what these funds will be for.

 

What does it mean for those who may need Legal Aid Services?

It means everyone who qualifies for legal aid will actually have a lawyer available to them. And people who are income-restricted but don’t qualify for full legal aid will still get comprehensive advice so they can better navigate the system on their own. There are statistics upon statistics that show that people who have legal representation in personal matters like family law, criminal law and immigration law do better in society on the whole as a result. They have more faith and confidence in the justice system and take more responsibility for their own actions when they are properly advised.

I am going to quote our Law Society President, Lisa Hamilton, who said “those who benefit most from this Legal Aid funding increase are often marginalized or are in at-risk populations, so even a little legal help at an early stage can solve issues and allow people to get on with their lives.”

 

What does this mean for the lawyers and service providers who practice law in this area?  

Perhaps there will now be more lawyers interested in doing legal aid work. We all know how expensive the world is and most lawyers graduate with student loans that are more than a house mortgage. This may entice them to take jobs in the legal aid field if the wages are more competitive. 

With more new lawyers joining up, the current lawyers doing this work won’t have their time spread so thin. Also, the junior lawyers who are working will develop better skills and be capable of more complex or serious matters earlier on in their careers. This in turn means more lawyers to cover the need and provide services and legal advice and representation. This will in turn, hopefully, prevent burnout of the senior lawyers and keep them from leaving this area of work for other areas that can better pay the bills. 

Also, self-represented individuals going through the court system take so much extra time and resources. They are trying to navigate a really complex system on their own and that is hard to get right the first time.

If there are more lawyers assisting, the court system itself, including the registry, the sheriffs, the judges, and the support workers are better able to do their own jobs. Cases will be dealt with more efficiently and the whole system will then be more efficient, which costs less in the long run. This will benefit everyone because the administration of justice will benefit from funded lawyers looking after people’s interests.

 

 

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