Championing the cause of access
Howard R. Berge, QC
Lawyers have a historic and ongoing commitment to access to justice. We believe that all people deserve equal protection under the law and, to that end, deserve the benefit of legal advice and access to the courts. For poor people, it is access to legal aid that makes access to justice possible. That is why lawyers must champion the cause of a properly funded legal aid program.
The recent federal budget offered a ray of hope - a boost to criminal legal aid contributions in each of the next two fiscal years. The federal government is now committing $92 million annually to legal aid Canada-wide; this includes $21.5 million of temporary funding that has become permanent and $20 million in new money. As BC picks up its share, it's time to make sure the money is spent on legal aid as intended. This means not only the portion earmarked for criminal legal aid and immigration/refugee matters, but the portion intended for civil legal aid, which is now desperately underfunded.
It bears repeating that the BC government itself collects some $92 million in annual revenues from its provincial tax on legal services, yet legal aid, far from deriving a benefit, is undergoing annual budget cuts. Just $71.4 million is designated as the provincial contribution in 2003, which includes the federal funding, and less in 2004.
There are real-life consequences, and costs, of depriving our communities of legal aid. As documented in the Law Society's study Where the Axe Falls - the real cost of government cutbacks to legal aid, women and children suffer the greatest impact when their legal interests are not protected, often going without legal advice or representation in situations of domestic violence. And the growing burden of unrepresented litigants in the courts is simply not sustainable.
As the province takes in more federal money for legal aid, this is the golden opportunity to reinstate legal aid funding overall, fairly and properly. It's simply time.
Lawyers are doing their part. Those who offer legal aid services do so despite very restrictive tariff rates and holdbacks, which most health professions would likely view as intolerable. Lawyers are nevertheless committed to legal aid to ensure that poor people have access to professional legal advice and the courts.
With the same professionalism, more than three-quarters of BC lawyers donate time of their own to pro bono services to help people solve legal problems for which legal aid is not available, according to a recent pro bono survey.
This month, the CBA made news nationally by calling on Canadian lawyers to make pro bono commitments of 50 hours a year. What the headlines now need to reflect is that BC's legal profession is already ahead of the national curve by the launch of ProBonoNet BC, the first major project of Pro Bono Law BC. Unique in Canada, this web-based project matches community groups needing legal assistance with volunteer lawyers. If you are looking for your own opportunity to offer pro bono services in this way, you are urged to join ProBonoNet BC at www.probononet.bc.ca.
When I reflect on the events of the past year, I'm proud that the Law Society has shown national leadership on other access issues too - most notably, through our constitutional challenge of federal money laundering legislation. That legislation would have imposed requirements on lawyers to report information on their clients to the state, violating solicitor-client privilege. On another front, our Law Society did not shy away from countering the provincial government's unilateral decision to close courthouses across the province.
The government's civil liability review and administrative justice project have generated many weighty and controversial issues that call out for the expertise of the profession. The Justice Reform Task Force - a project in which the government, the profession and the judiciary have a voice - is developing proposals that also need an access to justice perspective on such topics as the proposal for a unified family court.
Already this year the Benchers have raised the priority of access to justice issues within the Law Society by transforming our Access to Justice Working Group into a permanent Access to Justice Committee. Bencher Patricia Schmit, QC chairs that new committee, and is joined by Benchers James D. Vilvang, QC, Anne K. Wallace, William Jackson and June Preston, Life Benchers Gerald Lecovin, QC and Marjorie Martin and lawyer Vicki Trerise.
The committee should now be able to focus on longer-term strategies, while being better able to bring pressing issues to the Benchers' table.
The Access to Justice Committee is mandated to identify and analyze access issues that fall within the Law Society's statutory mandate, to help the Benchers in prioritizing these issues and to do policy work for Bencher consideration. Without a doubt, they have their work cut out for them. In addition to reviewing government initiatives, the Committee will canvass a range of issues, from reform of the small claims court to legal expenses insurance products for the public, to municipal bylaw reform.
Consultations within the profession will be critical to the success of the work. If you have ideas, the Committee wants to hear from you.