President’s Blog
March 06, 2017

by Herman Van Ommen, QC

At their March 3 meeting, the Benchers approved A Vision for Publicly Funded Legal Aid in British Columbia. This important report clearly articulates the Law Society’s vision for publicly funded legal aid.

The Law Society has been an integral part of the creation and development of legal aid in BC. Of late, and particularly since the early 2000s, legal aid has suffered from a lack of funding. The current legal aid program provides less by way of legal services to those in need than it did in earlier times. Impediments to equal access to justice risk undermining the rule of law. It is clear that a robust program of legal aid is needed to counter the inequalities that exist in society, and to uphold the rule of law and the ideals of our society.

The vision adopted by the Benchers articulates the view that a successful legal aid program must ensure that every person, regardless of their means, has access to legal information and services necessary to assist in understanding whether the issue they find themselves faced with attracts rights and remedies or subjects them to obligations and responsibilities. This information is crucial. Armed with early knowledge, problems can be more manageable.

The vision sets out the types of legal services that publicly funded legal aid should cover, recognising that the most disadvantaged and vulnerable members of society are entitled to additional assistance in order to be able to resolve their legal problems. Indigenous people, in particular, struggle in their interactions with the justice system, and the vision articulates a requirement for programs to be developed in consultation with the Indigenous community, to support their needs.

In developing this vision, the task force recognized that there are a range of complex factors to be weighed in creating a successful legal aid program. Consideration needs to be given to the barriers people face in accessing justice, the challenges the Legal Services Society faces in fulfilling its mandate, the challenges the government faces in prioritizing competing public needs, and the challenges lawyers face in trying to provide access to justice through the current legal aid system.

The task force researched and reviewed an extensive amount of material on legal aid in developing the vision. It held a colloquium in November last year, where the draft vision was presented to over 40 system stakeholders, including the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General, the Chief Justice of BC, the Chief Judge of the Provincial Court, justices of the BC Supreme Court, CEOs and counsel for social justice organizations, representatives of the Legal Services Society, the Law Foundation, legal aid lawyers and a representative of Native Court Workers. Feedback from the colloquium was incorporated into the report and vision.

This vision that we have adopted will guide Benchers in their future discussions to promote legal aid. I would like to extend my sincere thanks to members of the Legal Aid Task Force for their contributions over the past year. I encourage you to read the report and to consider what steps the legal profession can take now, and in the future to improve access to justice.