Legal aid funding in B.C. budget doesn't cover demand for services, CBA says
‘The numbers of self-represented litigants is going to remain high,’ says bar association president
The B.C. government has pledged, in its 2018 budget, to increase investments in the justice sector, promising a total of $56 million over the next three years, stretching across programs from Indigenous services to increased staffing.
The Canadian Bar Association's B.C. branch says that while the additional funding is welcomed, it only covers a quarter of what is needed to provide services to families and others who cannot afford legal fees.
"The Legal Services Society had estimated that to provide family law legal aid to anyone who meets the income qualifications is going to cost about $20 million and we've got just under $5 million in funding [for that service]," said Bill Veenstra, the president of the CBA's B.C. branch.
That means picking and choosing which cases to support, he told Stephen Quinn, the host of CBC's The Early Edition.
Last year, the CBA's B.C. branch found 40 per cent of British Columbians are unrepresented by a lawyer in family court cases and 20 per cent are unrepresented in criminal cases.
That lack of legal representation often leads to longer court cases and greater use of taxpayer dollars — a problem that was brought up at the budget announcement.
"Over the years, cuts to legal aid and reductions in family law services have left people without legal representation and torn families apart. That's why we are expanding legal aid," Finance Minister Carole James announced on Tuesday.
'Can't afford to do these cases'
Veenstra said the bar had also hoped the budget would address tariffs — the way the Legal Services Society, a Crown agency funded by the government, pays lawyers who work on these types of cases.
The tariffs have only increased once in the last 27 years in B.C., Veenstra said.
It is currently set at about $84 dollars an hour which goes toward covering all costs, including overhead expenses.
By comparison, in Ontario, it's about $135 an hour.
"It's continually falling behind in real dollars," Veenstra said. "Lawyers simply can't afford to do these cases anymore and the numbers that are willing to take them on are steadily dwindingly."
Veenstra noted the NDP's budget is the first significant increase in legal aid funding in a number of years but it just doesn't meet the growing need.
"My guess is that the numbers of self-represented litigants is going to remain high, particularly in the family law justice system," Veenstra said.
"The repercussions are that those whose families break apart are stuck in the system, often longer than they need to be."
With files from The Early Edition.