British Columbia

Legal aid should be essential service: report

The head of an inquiry into legal aid in B.C. says legal assistance for low-income people should be declared an essential public service and get stable government funding.

The head of an inquiry into legal aid in B.C. says legal assistance for low-income people should be declared an essential public service and get stable government funding.

In a report released Tuesday on the state of legal aid in B.C., lawyer Len Doust said federal and provincial funding cuts have left the system unable to meet the most basic needs of B.C. residents.

Governments must provide increased, stable funding, Doust said.

His top recommendation is to make legal aid an essential service, because without adequate legal help, people can be deprived of their rights or access to other services they need.

Doust, who was appointed by the Canadian Bar Association and the B.C. Law Society to investigate B.C.'s legal aid system, also recommends making more people eligible for the service, expanding legal aid in rural areas, and giving legal aid workers better pay, training and other support.

Alison Brewin, the co-chairwoman of the Coalition for Public Legal Services, welcomes the report, saying Doust has uncovered a broken legal aid system and offered concrete steps to fix it.

Brewin said hopes the government can push past ideology and listen to the message that legal aid is an essential service.

The province's attorney general, Barry Penner, said his department would review the report, as would whoever is named attorney general by premier-designate Christy Clark when she and her cabinet are sworn in next week.

But Penner defended the province's commitment to legal aid, noting funding has remained stable even as other government programs have seen recent cuts.

"If there's additional things we can do, I am certainly willing to encourage the Legal Services Society to consider those," Penner said in an interview.

"We've been able to maintain legal aid funding this year even though we have a $1-billion deficit. I think that does demonstrate a significant level of commitment."

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