|For immediate release||October 3, 2000|
Law Society of BC study reveals social cost of legal aid cutbacks— stakeholders need to discuss next steps
(Vancouver) - A recent study conducted for the Law Society of British Columbia identifies significant barriers to the public's access to justice due to reductions in government funding of legal aid. Where the Axe Falls - the real cost of government cutbacks to legal aid is an extensive research report that will be 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.
"For many years, we have heard about the social and access to justice consequences of legal aid funding cutbacks," said Karl Warner, Q.C., President of the Law Society. "In response to the concerns, the Law Society felt it was important to commission an independent research study on the impact of legal aid cutbacks on low-income people."
Where the Axe Falls examines whether legal aid cutbacks have impacted differently on women and men, and whether or not the cutbacks have had a disproportionate effect on women and children. Key findings of the report indicate that:
- 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 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 those lawyers expressed the view that women are more likely than men not participate in advancing their interests unless they have legal assistance.
The Law Society is recommending that the report be used to renew discussions on legal aid funding. "The Law Society's primary mandate is protection of the public interest in the administration of justice, and that includes ensuring equal access to the legal system," said Mr. Warner. "As a first step, we want to meet with federal and provincial government representatives and other stakeholders to examine the report and work on solutions so that legal aid is restored to the people who need it. The Law Society is also working on helping lawyers offer affordable legal services to those low and middle income British Columbians who would not be eligible for legal aid assistance, even under a healthy legal aid program."
Where the Axe Falls - the real cost of government cutbacks to legal aid completes the final phase of legal aid research that began in 1998. The first two phases 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 first 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.
The final phase of the 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 in the study 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. The research study was conducted by B.C. lawyer/mediator Vicki Trerise for the Law Society's Access to Justice Committee.