British Columbia

B.C. trial lawyers take stand over lack of legal aid

Trial lawyers in B.C. are withdrawing duty counsel services to draw attention to the plight of the legal aid system.

Trial Lawyers Association withdraws duty counsel service

Trial lawyers in B.C. are taking their protest over legal aid funding to courtrooms across the province.

More than half of the province's 70 courthouses will have no duty counsel this week while another 32 have limited access to such lawyers, who normally represent people for first-time appearances or those without a lawyer.

The Trial Lawyers Association of B.C. says the unprecedented move aims to draw attention to the underfunded legal aid program.

Rishi Gill, a co-chairman of the Legal Aid Action Committee within the B.C. Trial Lawyers Association, said legal aid is a cornerstone of the court system, yet governments have consistently cut funding for two decades.

"This is about the public having fair access to justice," said Gill. "This is about the public having a fair system they can utilize."

Duty counsel faces burnout

Vancouver lawyer Robert Bellows said duty counsel struggles to keep up with its demands.

"To do a great job there is an ethical issue and it's called delivering quality and you either become a martyr, or your burn out, or you have no life outside of law if you are doing serious work and you want to do it properly," he said.

Criminal Lawyer Phil Rankin wore a blue ribbon on his lapel in solidarity with the trial lawyers as he went into Vancouver Provincial Court on Wednesday.

Rankin, whose father Harry pioneered legal aid in 1975, is joining the fight to restore it.

"All us private lawyers pay a seven-per-cent tax. The government of British Columbia raises $200 million per year," he said. "They spend $50 million on legal aid and they take $150 million of our client's money for general revenues."

Escalating job action

The province says limited duty council services will be offered throughout the job action, which is scheduled to end on Friday. It is not clear how many criminal cases will be affected by the withdrawal.

Last month, the province announced it was boosting legal aid funding by more than $2 million a year, bringing the total spent on legal aid to $68.6 million annually.

But Gill says it's not enough after years of cuts to legal aid services.

If the government doesn't come up with more legal aid money, lawyers plan escalating job action for the next four months by refusing duty counsel service for one week in January, two weeks in February, three weeks in March and four weeks in April.

"I can say lawyers around the province are united for the first time in quite a long time," Gill said.

"And if we don't get a response we will escalate this to possibly withdrawing services for gang trials, possibly withdrawing services for murder trials."

Gill said it was a coincidence that the high-profile cases of accused Stanley Cup rioters were put off in Vancouver on Wednesday, but the resulting backlog is an example of what's to come if demands for increased legal aid funding aren't met.

B.C. Attorney General Shirley Bond said Wednesday lawyers simply want a pay increase from their current rates of between $84 and $93 an hour.

Bond said any increase would have to come from legal aid funding and that would mean fewer people will get the help they deserve.

With files from the CBC's Emily Elias, The Canadian Press