BC lawyers vote non-confidence in Attorney General
BC lawyers attending a Law Society Special General Meeting on May 22 passed a motion expressing a loss of confidence in Geoff Plant, QC as the Attorney General of British Columbia. The motion passed by a 70% majority vote (754:325). Lawyers at the meeting also called on the Attorney General to immediately cease the diversion of funds from the provision of legal aid and to allocate all the revenues received through the special tax on legal services and from the federal government to the provision of legal aid. That motion passed 717:83.
The Special General Meeting - requisitioned by over 150 members under Law Society Rule 1-9 and held by the Benchers as required under that Rule - drew over 1,140 lawyers at the main meeting site in Vancouver and 20 audioconference locations across BC.
In speaking to his motion of non-confidence, Victoria lawyer Michael Mulligan said that the Attorney General is not a mere member of Cabinet, but a minister of justice with an obligation to see justice done, and legal aid funding cuts had to be viewed in that light. "Mr. Plant's failure to meet his moral and ministerial duty will leave thousands of persons without legal representation in family law, poverty law and human rights matters," he said. "Let there be no misunderstanding: the rights and freedoms of those persons will go unprotected."
Mr. Mulligan noted that BC is the only province to collect a tax on lawyers' accounts, which generated $91.6 million in the past year, in addition to the $9 million received from the federal government for criminal legal aid. He said that Mr. Plant has proposed a plan to reduce legal aid funding to $54 million, while at the same time the government is increasing the tax rate from 7 to 7.5%.
"I expect today you will hear words to the effect that there should not be a personal attack on the Attorney General. Please recall that my resolutions are not with respect to Mr. Plant in his personal capacity, but rather in his performance as minister of justice," Mr. Mulligan said. "However, to the extent that he is made to feel uncomfortable, that pales in comparison to the effect of his plan on the powerless who will be denied access to justice."
Phil Rankin, of Vancouver, seconded the motion. He cited the Attorney General's closure of courthouses without consultation and dismissal of the Legal Services Society board as examples of failing to work with those parts of the legal community. Mr. Plant had also criticized the former government for not directing the legal services tax to legal aid, Mr. Rankin observed. "Why shouldn't he be criticized by us, or has the political process been so debased that we just don't expect anyone in office to have to stand by what they have said?" he said.
D. Geoffrey Cowper, QC urges lawyers at the May 22 Special General Meeting to reject the motion of non-confidence in Mr. Plant as Attorney General, as put forward by Michael Mulligan (left). But the motion passed by more than a two-thirds majority, and lawyers called on the Attorney General to allocate all revenues collected by government from the legal services tax to legal aid.
Geoffrey Cowper, QC spoke against the motion. He said he could attest to the personal honour and integrity of Mr. Plant and believed that the motion before the meeting would not help legal aid, but rather could imperil the profession's reputation. In his view, the motion was inaccurate, unfair and improperly personal.
Mr. Cowper said that, while Mr. Plant had considered it his responsibility to call on the former government to fulfil its promises with respect to the tax, the Attorney also made it clear that he did not wish people to misunderstand the position of a new government, which was that the tax, if it could not be abolished, would go to general revenue.
He urged lawyers that this was not a motion to be passed at a Law Society meeting. "It allies us with the worst of our political culture; it allies us with personal attacks; it allies us with incomplete statements that are political in nature," Mr. Cowper said. "And finally, we don't elect the Attorney General; he doesn't have the office at our confidence. We elect a government, the Premier selects his Attorney and the Attorney fulfils his functions. It is only when his past as a lawyer is in question that we have any purchase over him, and we ought to defeat this resolution."
Derek Corrigan, who said he was addressing the resolution as a Burnaby councillor, said the Attorney General had moved the goal posts when Burnaby council attempted to save the Burnaby courthouse from closure. He said council offered to meet the government's stated concerns by defraying the costs of building rent, maintenance, utilities and taxes. The government had then asked Burnaby to pay $1 million toward courthouse staffing.
Cards go up as lawyers at the Vancouver SGM site vote on one of several procedural motions. A majority of those at the meeting called for the substantive motions to be debated and voted on separately, not simultaneously. The substantive motions proceeded by secret ballot.
Brenda Mulliner, managing staff lawyer at the Legal Services Society in Prince Rupert, flagged that she was seeing women in difficult circumstances needing representation who were denied legal aid under the recent cuts. Hazelton lawyer Linda Locke of the Upper Skeena Counselling and Legal Assistance Society spoke about closing that office and the severe impact on those in the native community. "This is not about Mr. Plant," Ms. Locke said of the motion. "This is about the poor, the impoverished, the women, the children, the aboriginal peoples, the trauma. This is about people who come to the door and are looking at me with tears in their eyes, this is about people losing their houses, this is about bankruptcy." Recalling words of Harry Rankin, she noted, "Finally we are talking about something that counts."
New Westminster lawyer Margaret Hollis noted that, while Mr. Plant may not have broken any promises, as he hadn't made any, it didn't follow that what was wrong for the previous government isn't wrong for this government. "If it was wrong before, it's wrong now," she said.
At the outset of the meeting, President Richard Gibbs, QC had proposed that voting on the substantive motions be by secret ballot and the three motions expected to be introduced at the meeting be voted on together. He asked the meeting to decide this issue. Motions submitted in advance of the meeting were those of Mr. Mulligan and an amended motion of Richard Margetts, QC of Victoria, which Mr. Cowper said he intended to support.
The Margetts motion would have encouraged the Attorney General to vigorously ensure an accessible justice system and would have called on the provincial government to increase legal aid funding, to allocate the revenues from the tax on legal services (if that tax were retained) to legal aid, to consult and to work with other participants in the justice system and the legal profession.
A majority of lawyers at the meeting rejected a proposal to vote on the Mulligan and Margetts motions simultaneously. After the Mulligan motions passed, Mr. Margetts told the meeting he had decided against putting forward his own motion.
President Richard Gibbs, QC thanked all who attended the meeting for their participation in what he believed to be the largest meeting of the profession in BC.
Resolution passed by the members at the May 22 Special General Meeting
1. WHEREAS Geoff Plant, the Attorney General, publicly condemned the former government for profiting by $15 million from the legal aid system by diverting funds collected pursuant to the special tax that was imposed on lawyers' accounts;
WHEREAS Mr. Plant stood up in the legislature on May 11, 2000 and said the following "I'm sure we can quibble about the numbers, but the larger public policy question still remains. Isn't there something wrong with the government taking all this money from legal accounts as a result of a tax which was imposed, the justification of which was for legal aid, yet it doesn't actually really direct all of that revenue into the legal aid system";
WHEREAS Mr. Plant now plans to divert more than $48.5 million a year in funds collected from the special tax on lawyers' accounts away from the provision of legal aid;
WHEREAS Mr. Plant's plan to divert these funds will leave thousands of British Columbians who are poor, disadvantaged, and disproportionately female without legal representation;
WHEREAS Mr. Plant has failed to uphold and protect the public interest in the administration of justice;
THEREFORE the Law Society of British Columbia has lost confidence in Mr. Plant as the Attorney General of British Columbia.
2. THAT the Law Society of British Columbia demands that the Attorney General uphold and protect the public interest in the administration of justice, immediately cease the diversion of funds from the provision of legal aid, and allocate 100% of the revenue received through the special tax on legal services and from the federal government to the provision of legal aid.