Cost of Justice: B.C.’s Legal Aid Crisis

B.C.’s lawyers see moral and economic reasons to support legal aid.

Lawyer Leonard Doust heads a commission examining B.C.’s legal-aid crisis.

B.C.’s lawyers see moral and economic reasons to support legal aid.

B.C.’s lawyers are making an unprecedented push to solve one of the province’s most vexing social problems: legal aid for the poor. Social activists have long argued that sharp cuts to legal aid in B.C. have caused crushing hardship for those who can’t afford legal help. But as B.C.’s law groups work through a wide-ranging public commission to tackle the problem, another argument is gaining attention: paying for poor people’s legal fees might actually save money.

The man chosen to lead the Public Commission on Legal Aid, Leonard Doust, is a lawyer with 43 years’ experience who can tell you just how unpleasant it is to go to trial against someone without representation, both morally and practically. “It’s very difficult because there’s a consistent effort made in every one of those instances from both the judge and the prosecutor to ensure that the person accused, for example, in a criminal case, is made aware of their rights,” he says. “From a practical view, it puts tremendous pressure in terms of cost and court time. . . . It increases the trial process, I would say, anywhere from 50 to even 100 per cent.”

In 2009 a collection of B.C. social-service groups signed a resolution calling for a public commission seeking an answer to the legal-aid crisis. When the B.C. government showed no interest in taking on such a project, the legal profession stepped up. The commission launched in June, funded by the Canadian Bar Association’s B.C. branch, the Law Society of B.C., the B.C. Crown Counsel Association, the Law Foundation of B.C., the Vancouver Bar Association and the Victoria Bar Association. The commission is collecting written submissions and hosting public meetings around the province until the end of October and will then submit its recommendations to the provincial and federal governments.

Melina Buckley, a lawyer and policy consultant who has studied legal aid for the Canadian Bar Association, says the B.C. legal-aid system has been fundamentally changed since it was introduced in 1979. Originally, it mandated that in certain areas of law the government must provide legal representation for those who could not afford it themselves. The Legal Services Society, the non-profit that delivers legal aid in B.C., often blew its budgets on these strict requirements, Buckley says, and the B.C. Liberals changed the rules after they came to power in 2001. Now legal aid is no longer mandatory. The Legal Services Society is given a fixed budget and instructed to do the best it can for as many as possible, Buckley says. Government funding for the society was slashed by one-third between 2002 and 2010, from $88.8 million to $66.9 million. Meanwhile, everyone contacted for this article agrees that the demand for legal aid in B.C. is only growing.

Cuts to legal-aid funding might not be saving the province any money.

These changes have been devastating for many people who can’t afford legal help, says Alison Brewin, executive director for the West Coast Legal Education and Action Fund. The organization’s mandate is to pursue law reforms that strengthen women’s equality rights, Brewin says, but the legal-aid cuts in 2002 largely overshadowed that work. “It’s irrelevant if no one can go to court to actually access those rights,” she says.

Brewin, who focuses on family law, has a wealth of heart-breaking stories about women struggling to handle daunting divorce-related legal disputes alone against trained lawyers. “Women’s lives will deteriorate very quickly,” she says. “We know women who have gone down to part-time jobs to manage the court case. . . . Literally, there are women in this province who have gone from big houses in West Van to basement suites in east Van.”

It’s all made more frustrating with the thought that cuts to legal-aid funding might not be saving the province any money. In addition to the costly delays unrepresented litigants can bring to the courtroom, Buckley says, people without a lawyer are also less likely to settle their disputes out of court, which raises the demand for trials. A 2009 study produced by PricewaterhouseCoopers on behalf of the Australian group National Legal Aid found that funding for legal aid in Australia results in a net economic benefit through increased court efficiency.

But despite the dramatic impact legal aid has on the efficiency of the justice system and the lives of some of the province’s most vulnerable, the issue remains stubbornly low-key with the general public, says Buckley. The benefits are not immediately apparent to most people, she says, and legal aid only directly affects society’s poorest. And so the issue has little general support, and won’t unless the public is made more aware of the problems. Hopefully, she says, the commission will accomplish that: “This idea of the public commission is a really fresh, interesting approach, so I’m really interested in seeing what happens.”