Commission to study legal aid
by G. Glen Ridgway, QC
In my early years of practice in the Cowichan Valley, the lawyers in this community took turns administering legal aid services. One lawyer took on the task of handling assignments. The rest of the lawyers would take turns staffing a weekly “clinic” at the local courthouse. We met with people who had legal problems, and we provided advice. We also took applications for legal aid services. The plan at that time covered primarily criminal matters, with some subsequent expansion into family law issues. The tariff was as modest then as it is now.
That was “legal aid” in the smaller communities. My impression was that there was a general acceptance by members of the public of the need for legal aid/help for financially disadvantaged people. There was appreciation for the lawyers who participated. The system was far from perfect, and we all knew it.
That was a time before the Charter of Rights. Inherent in the Charter is a right to counsel and an emphasis on legal advice and assistance for the citizens of Canada. The Charter has great acceptance among Canadians, and yet I sense that there is less acceptance of the need to provide legal aid. My impression or sense is that there was greater acceptance of legal aid in the pre-Charter years.
The funding for legal aid activities goes up and goes down. Services are expanded, modified, reduced. This appears to attract no public attention or emotion, save and except from the groups in our society very directly affected or involved.
A modest shift in health funding or services attracts massive public emotion. The same applies to education, albeit somewhat calmer.
All aspects of legal aid or poverty law funding have been studied extensively in this province, in this country, in the United States, and in the United Kingdom. The results are all fairly similar. People see legal aid as important, and yet we all know that no one is going to win or lose an election on the politics of legal aid funding.
The Law Society views legal aid services in this province as needing significant improvement. The issue for us, and I think for others, is — how do we get there?
The Canadian Bar Association, BC Branch, has announced a plan to proceed with a commission to inquire into legal aid in this province. They have requested financial and other assistance from various law-related organizations. They are prepared to fully fund the commission, but have requested financial assistance from those organizations that can do so. The Law Society has decided to join them. The Victoria and Vancouver Bar Associations, the Law Foundation and the Crown Counsel Association are also joining and providing funding.
I can indicate to you that the Benchers thought long and hard about participation. We are all aware — and I have certainly been reminded by members since — that this has been the subject of much inquiry and study. Benchers were skeptical as to the approach to be taken by the commission and whether it would achieve any results. We have been assured by the originators of this concept, and it is something with which Benchers concur, that the commission is meant to be non-political, and its purpose is to achieve a long-term public acceptance of legal aid as a right of our citizens, accompanied by an appropriate funding model. The executive members of the Canadian Bar Association have told me that they feel a “solution” will likely not be effective or in place for a number of years. This is step one in a long-term process.
In selecting the commissioner and in developing the format, the focus will be on how to achieve public acceptance and involvement in legal aid, an appropriate delivery model, and a clear funding approach. While it will be difficult to control participation of those who wish to use this as a forum for a political agenda or to criticize the Legal Services Society, the focus will be on the more long-term and sustainable goals. The plan is to include participation by all community leaders and by local MPs and MLAs. The commission will be holding public meetings in our larger communities throughout the province.
It was on this basis that the Law Society has agreed to participate. We recognize that many will not agree with this approach and will wish to adopt other methods of attempting to improve the situation with respect to legal aid in our province. That is their right, and we anticipate that other avenues will be explored by various groups to advance the cause of legal aid.
We encourage BC lawyers and other interested British Columbians to participate in this exercise and attend the commission meetings. Information from the commission will be available in the near future as to dates, times and locations. Please play a part and do what you can to involve the public. Recognize that this is the start of a long process. We are all hopeful about its outcome.
Needless to say, you can contact me by email at the Law Society (firstname.lastname@example.org) or at my office (email@example.com). You can also phone me at 250-746-7121 or 250-715-8439.
The Public Commission on Legal Aid
The purpose of the Public Commission on Legal Aid is to “engage the British Columbia public on Legal Aid in British Columbia and to determine what the priorities of British Columbians are in regards to Legal Aid.”
The commission will be led by Leonard Doust, QC and will convene meetings across BC in September and October 2010. Submissions are invited from all interested parties, including residents, community organization representatives and justice system stakeholders. For further information, contact Michael Litchfield, Public Commission on Legal Aid at 250-862-5715 or visit publiccommission.org.