British Columbia

Legal aid cuts could jam B.C. courts

A shortfall in legal aid funding in B.C. will mean many people who used to qualify for a publicly funded defence lawyer will now have to represent themselves in court.

A shortfall in legal aid funding in B.C. will mean many people who used to qualify for a publicly funded defence lawyer will now have to represent themselves in court.

Instead of a lawyer who presents their case in court, those affected will now get a few minutes with a duty counsel lawyer to get legal advice before appearing in court on their own.

The changes are part of wider service cuts to B.C.'s Legal Aid Services Society that came into effect April 1 because of funding shortfalls.

They will specifically affect people charged with breach of probation, breach of bail conditions or failure to appear, who could be facing sentences of up to six months in jail.

Defence lawyer David Hopkins said such cases account for 10 to 20 per cent of court appearances at the provincial courthouse in Vancouver.

"There's going to be a large number of people who are poor who are not going to be assisted by lawyers, and they are going to be somewhat confused and unsure about what to do with themselves," Hopkins told CBC News on Wednesday.

Right to a lawyer

Hopkins said he expects many people will be advised by the duty counsel to argue in court that under the Charter of Rights they have a right to a lawyer and to demand a stay of proceedings.

That could create a backlog of cases in the system, because if a judge agrees that the accused has a right to a lawyer, then the case will get sent back to the already cash-strapped legal aid system for review.

"That's going to be a real drain on the system," Hopkins said. "We can certainly expect a dramatic increase in the amount of court time that is going to be devoted to those cases."

Hugh Stansfield, the chief judge of B.C.'s Provincial Court, refused to make predictions about the impact of the cuts on the court system but said he's concerned people could soon be going to trial without a lawyer.

"I'm concerned anytime somebody is appearing, particularly in criminal proceedings, because they are so much more complicated often than family and civil proceedings, and because they have the jeopardy associated with them of somebody being denied their liberty," said Stansfield.

Several factors led to cutbacks

The Legal Aid Services Society said on its website it had to cut back some services because demand for its services has been rising across the board, but its funding is not.  

The society is a non-profit organization that receives the bulk of its funding from governments, but it also receives grants from other organizations.

In January, CBC News reported that about 38 staff in the Lower Mainland would be laid off because the grants for this year were lower than expected and income from the society's own investments was forecast to fall because of nose-diving interest rates. Government funding increased only slightly, the society said.

Duty counsel are lawyers who are available for brief legal advice and consultations at courthouses, usually at no cost.

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