Tuesday, March 8, 2011

BC's Legal Aid System: The Foundation of Change

The Public Commission on Legal Aid has released it's report, Foundation of Change: Report of the Public Commission on Legal Aid. Authored by eminent lawyer, Leonard Doust, QC, the report is a culmination of in-person hearings and written submissions from individuals, organizations and professional groups commenting on the state of BC's legal aid system.

The history and mandate of the Commission:

The Public Commission on Legal Aid was established in June of 2010 to engage the public of British Columbia in order to determine their priorities regarding legal aid in the province of British Columbia.

In the fall of 2010 the Public Commission on Legal Aid issued an open call for written submissions and travelled throughout the province to hear oral submissions from interested parties including the public, community organization representatives and justice system stakeholders.

The full report can be viewed

Key Recommendations from the Report:

· The Legal Services Society Act should be amended to include a statement clearly recog­nizing legal aid as an essential public service and the entitlement to legal aid where an individual has a legal problem that puts into jeopardy their or their family’s security — be it their liberty, health, employment, housing, or ability to meet the basic necessities of life — and he or she has no meaningful ability to pay for legal services.

· Develop a new approach to define core services and priorities which merges the traditional legal categories approach (e.g., criminal law, family law, and poverty law) with an approach based on the fundamental interests of the most disadvantaged clients.

· Modernize and expand financial eligibility for those trying to access legal aid so more people, such as the “working poor” and those in need can quality for legal aid.

· Increase the presence and accessibility of legal aid across the province through the establishment of Regional Legal Aid Centres across the province to serve as the point of entry hub of legal aid service for all core services, including access to family, criminal law and poverty law matters. Regional Centres should also provide mobile outreach services to assist individuals who cannot access the Centres due to geographic or cultural barriers.

· Legal information is not a substitute for legal assistance and representation, especially for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of our community are the least likely to be able to access, utilize, and benefit from these self-help resources.

· The LawLINE should be re-established and expanded because it provided such an effective and cost-efficient service.

· Legal aid service delivery must include targeted strategies to meet the needs of under-served communities, including Aboriginal communities, women leaving abusive relationships, individuals with mental or cognitive disabilities, migrant workers, and the elderly.

· A special protocol or additional guidelines are required to address the barriers to legal aid reported by women who are leaving abusive relationships.

· LSS should enhance the use of case management techniques in large criminal cases and should introduce it in other situations where warranted.

· Expand engagement with stakeholders and support renewal toward creating a more innovative, strategic, and flexible legal aid system in BC. This includes increased collaboration between public and private legal aid service providers and others involved in the provision of justice and advocacy services.

· Ensure an adequate long-term and stable funding base for BC's legal aid system by the federal and provincial governments.

· Increased support, training and resources to community advocates, legal advocates, paralegals, and lawyers who provide both public and private legal aid services in order to ensure the quality of these services.

Media links & commentary:

BC Legal Aid System Fails to Meet Basic Needs
Ian Mulgrew, Vancouver Sun, March 8, 2011.


B.C.'s legal aid system is failing to meet even the most basic needs and should be fully funded as an essential public service, a public commission has concluded.

In a 67-page report released Tuesday, veteran Vancouver lawyer Leonard Doust said the province has fallen from being a leader in legal-aid services to seriously lagging behind other jurisdictions.

"We can no longer avoid the fact that we are failing the most disadvantaged members of our community," he said.

"Furthermore, no other province or territory in Canada, other than British Columbia, has made such drastic reductions to its legal aid budget while coping with the same fiscal environment. In fact, Ontario has managed to increase its contribution to legal aid during the same lean economic years."

Mark Benton, executive director of the B.C. Legal Services Society, welcomed the report's thrust and hoped it would prompt much-needed improvements.

He agreed the current scope and availability of legal aid does not adequately meet the needs of the public and that significantly more funding — another $47 million at least according to Doust — is required from Ottawa and Victoria.

Hats Off to You, Mr. McKim
Policy Note, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
Keith Reynolds, February 17th, 2011.

... this year the Legal Services Society service plan broke the mold. The Society offers legal representation for financially eligible people with serious family, child protection, criminal, or immigration problems, as well as information and advice services designed to help people resolve legal problems on their own.

So hats off to D. Maryland McKimm for penning the one service plan that had the courage to talk about providing services far below what British Columbians need.

Study Finds BC Legal Aid Fails to Meet 'Basic Needs'
Rod Mickelburgh, Globe & Mail, March 8, 2011.

“Over the past decade or so, the gap between legal aid needs and services has grown into a wide chasm, resulting in human suffering and related social and economic costs borne by our community,” said Mr. Doust, who was appointed last year to head a public commission on legal aid.

Among his recommendations to revive legal aid services, Mr. Doust called on the government to recognize legal aid as an essential public service and to increase its “long term, stable funding.”

Beginning in 2002, the provincial government reduced legal aid’s budget by close to 40 per cent over three years, resulting in the closing of 45 branch offices. The offices were replaced by seven regional centres, which have now been reduced to two, according to his report. At the same time, poverty and family law services were eliminated.

“Additional reductions in service occurred in 2009 – on top of what was then an unsustainable and highly volatile legal aid system,” said Mr. Doust.

“I have come to a much deeper appreciation wreaked by the absence of legal assistance and representation. ...We can no longer avoid the fact that we are failing the most disadvantaged members of our community, those for whom legal aid exists in our province.”

Coalition for Public Legal Services

From the CPLS blog:

LSS Board Chair acknowledges unmet needs

Outgoing Legal Services Society Chair D. Maryland McKimm QC makes the following point:

As I depart, the Legal Services Society is on a stable, albeit significantly reduced, footing. In the board’s assessment, however, the society is now providing services far below what the board believes is needed to properly assist British Columbians with low incomes and to effectively support the efficient operation of the justice system.

For Many, Access to Justice means actually getting to court: Too Many Fall through Cracks of System Mainly Serving Rich and Poor

Ian Mulgrew, Vancouver Sun, March 7, 2011.

In a speech to the Law Society of B.C., the chairman of the province's Legal Services Society said the crisis over access to justice is about even more fundamental issues than the present professional discussion embraces.

"For many people, particularly in remote communities, the biggest barrier to accessing justice is simply getting to the courthouse, or even having the means of getting to the courthouse," Victoria lawyer Mayland McKimm said Friday.

Chief Justice of Canada Beverley McLachlin and B.C. Court of Appeal Chief Justice Lance Finch, along with other senior jurists, have pushed problems with accessing justice onto the public agenda.


Legal Services Society response to the report of the Public Commission on Legal Aid

Mark Benton, QC, Executive Director of the Legal Services Society, made the following statement in response to the report of the Public Commission on Legal Aid.

LSS endorses the commission’s conclusion that the current scope and availability of legal aid in BC does not adequately meet the needs of the public. LSS also endorses the recommendation that legal aid must be recognized as an essential public service and that significantly more funding is needed.