Law Society study reveals the real cost of legal aid cutbacks

A recent study conducted for the Law Society identifies serious barriers to public access to justice resulting from reductions in government funding of legal aid.

Where the Axe Falls — the real cost of government cutbacks to legal aid, an extensive report on this research study, has been presented by the Law Society to Attorney General Andrew Petter, federal Minister of Justice Anne McLellan, members of the B.C. legal profession and other interested members of the legal community and the public. (The report is available in the "Publication & Reports" section of the Law Society website at www.lawsociety.bc.ca.)

The Law Society is committed to exploring ways it can assist in resolving the serious problems identified in this report.

Where the Axe Falls examines the impact of reductions in legal aid services for low-income people, in particular whether the cutbacks have impacted differently on women and men, and whether the cutbacks have had a disproportionate effect on women and children. These are just a few of the key findings of the report:

  • There is a very wide gap between the new financial cut-off levels for legal aid and the income required to hire a lawyer; eligibility for legal aid is now restricted almost entirely to people receiving social assistance or single parents with a very low earned income.

  • An adult working at minimum wage, with no children in the household, does not qualify for legal aid. This is the situation for many parents, mostly men, after separation.

  • Lack of coverage for variation of orders in family law is a serious problem.

  • There are many unrepresented people both in the B.C. Supreme Court and B.C. Provincial Court.

  • People are sent to participate in settlement discussions without receiving any legal information or advice.

  • In three of the four communities covered in the study, court registry staff reported that there are women in situations of domestic violence who are appearing in court unrepresented on maintenance variation applications, custody and access matters and on applications for restraining orders.

  • Several members of the judiciary who participated in the study expressed concern that some people are no longer turning to the legal system for help. While lawyers in the study gave examples of both men and women giving up on getting assistance to advance their legal rights, many of the lawyers expressed the view that women are more likely than men not to participate in advancing their interests unless they have legal assistance.

This research study was based on extensive interviews with 77 people involved in the delivery of legal services in four communities in the province: Vancouver, Vernon, Courtenay and Chetwynd. Participants included judges from the B.C. Supreme and Provincial Courts, courthouse registry staff, in-house lawyers and staff of the Legal Services Society, staff of community law offices and lawyers working on the family legal aid tariff. B.C. lawyer/mediator Vicki Trerise conducted the research study and prepared the report for the Law Society's Access to Justice Committee.

This study completes the third and final phase of a legal aid research project that began in 1998 and also follows up on some of the issues respecting women's access to legal aid that were flagged in the Law Society's 1992 gender equality study, chaired by Ted Hughes, Q.C. The first two phases of research consisted of 1) a comparative study of legal aid spending across Canada and 2) an analysis of the amount of provincial sales tax collected on legal services in B.C and the federal transfer payments made for legal aid. These two phases of the study are summarized in Reports on the Comparative Cost of Legal Aid in Canada and Legal Aid Funding in B.C.

If you would like further information on the legal aid study, or do not have Internet access and would like a hard copy of Where the Axe Falls or the reports that preceded it, please contact Laura Cooney, Policy and Practice Advice Department of the Law Society by telephone at (604) 669-2533 (toll-free in B.C. 1-800-903-5300) or by email at lcooney@lsbc.org.