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The Legal Aid Action Committee Announcement

The Legal Aid Action committee has announced a blackout of services for the period from July 7th- August 8th. Participating jurisdictions for the July blackout include Vancouver, Victoria, and Kamloops. I have learned today that some lawyers in Penticton are also participating in the blackout period for July. Vancouver Lawyers have not taken duty counsel dates for the July blackout. We anticipate LSS will have to bring in other lawyers to perform these functions. Participating lawyers will not being taking new referrals on from legal aid in Vancouver during this time.

Other jurisdictions such as Surrey, Richmond, North Vancouver, Abbotsford, Chilliwack and New Westminster lawyers are not on board with the action for the July blackout. However, the second phase of the job action will begin in October with the first week of every month being a blackout for services. We have recently received the support of Surrey, Sechelt and Valemount for this next phase, who were not previously participating. Surrey Courthouse is second only to Vancouver in the province for volume of matters being heard. We feel this is a significant step towards our ultimate goal of a complete halt of services.

The primary goal of the job action is access to justice. Access to justice means equal access to justice. In the BC Provincial Court 40% of persons with criminal matters go unrepresented. 95% or more in family matters go unrepresented. In small claims the number is 90-95%.

Since 1991 the absolute dollar value dedicated to legal aid has remained the same, as have the tariffs. However, inflation has increased by over 60%.

The obvious effect being that there simply isn’t enough in the budget for everyone to get a lawyer. Previously everybody had representation: civil, criminal, residential tenancy act.

One of the necessary criteria for legal aid approval is that the Crown is seeking jail as a possible sentence for the offence charged. Now we have people who are first time offenders that cannot afford a lawyer and have no “barrier to self representation” besides being uneducated and impoverished, and they are denied legal aid funding. Is it fair that people who do not have a prior criminal history are in greater jeopardy of being convicted because they are forced to proceed without representation?

Is that the result we want as a society? Do we want people to be labeled, criminalized, stigmatized, and pigeon holed, possibly leading to a cycle of continued destruction? Or do we want to provide those people with access to justice and hopefully rehabilitate and reintegrate them into society so they can be productive members? Both are likely a risk or gamble. But the former is definitely a greater moral and financial cost to society in the short and long term than the latter. The latter at least has some likelihood of society being able to benefit from an investment.

The cost to run a courtroom have to pay a Judge, Prosecutor, Lawyer, Sherriff, Clerk(s), and the money to keep the lights on and maintain the building. Unrepresented persons slows the process down substantially. If for example unrepresented people were to slow that down 20%, well then that increases costs accordingly. If a person is forced to go unrepresented then they are denied justice. If a person is unrepresented they delay the judicial process. Justice delayed is justice denied, once again. There is no question that lawyers make this process more efficient and the courts run more smoothly. The lack of funding perpetuates increased spending.

LAAC was recently successful with a Freedom of Information request that showed the amount of PST collected on legal fees as $130 million a year
(2011). The NDP introduced PST on legal fees in 1994 because legal aid was such a significant expense. This money has never been applied to legal aid funding and always used as general revenue.

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