British Columbia

B.C. coalition launches legal aid commission

Concerns over cuts to legal aid services in B.C. have prompted a coalition of justice groups to launch a public examination of the system.

Concerns over cuts to legal aid services in B.C. have prompted a coalition of justice groups to launch a public examination of the system.

The Public Commission on Legal Aid will visit 10 B.C. communities this fall to gather input from British Columbians in order to make recommendations to the provincial government.

The commission is a joint project of several groups, including the Law Society of B.C., the Vancouver Bar Association and the Canadian Bar Association's B.C. branch.

Stephen McPhee, vice president of the B.C. branch of the Canadian Bar Association, said the commission is long overdue.

"We believe that access to justice and legal aid is as essential a service as health care and education and it's time British Columbians become educated about their justice system," he said.

Last year, the B.C. Legal Services Society announced that a funding shortage would result in the closure of five regional offices throughout the province.

More than 50 people — nearly one third of its staff — have been laid off and its telephone legal aid service LawLINE no longer exists.

The society has also had to limit its focus to serious criminal, family, child protection and immigration cases.

Legal aid services insufficient

The president of the Canadian Bar Association's B.C. branch, James Bond, said there are several reasons behind the formation of the commission.

"There are simply not sufficient legal aid services available for British Columbians who need them," he said.

Bond noted legal aid funding that was cut several years ago has not been restored, and government funding has largely remained static in recent years.

"In addition, economic factors have had an adverse effect on other funding sources, while demand for legal aid services has increased," he said.

"There is a recognition, however, that unless government hears that the people of British Columbia consider legal aid a priority, it is unlikely that the difficulties which legal aid programs have faced over the last two decades are going to change."

McPhee is hoping the commission will help come up with some innovative ways of broadening the B.C. Legal Services Society's funding sources.

"I think that for the first time in British Columbia we're going to have the opportunity for British Columbians to have significant input into the direction they see legal aid going, and perhaps find ways to get funding through traditional ways, and new ways," he said.

Commission hearings are scheduled to begin in September. Leonard Doust, a well-known B.C. lawyer, will lead the commission.