Update on the Legal Services Society

The Legal Services Society will be changing some services and some of its operations this year.

The changes are necessary because the society’s current government and non-government revenues are insufficient to cover the current demand for legal aid, says LSS Executive Director Mark Benton, QC.

Mark Benton, QC  
Legal Services Society
Executive Director Mark Benton, QC

“The changes will direct available funding and resources to people in greatest need while having the least impact on current clients,” Benton said. He added that many family and criminal law services will remain unchanged.

The provincial government has not cut the Legal Services Society’s funding and is expected to provide a modest increase for large criminal cases, he said. Non-government funding is expected to decline and more funding is still needed to meet the increased demand.

“In the latter part of 2008, there was a significant increase in the demand for legal aid representation services. At the end of November 2008, referrals to lawyers for emergency family services were up 21 per cent over budget and criminal referrals were up five per cent. Immigration referrals increased 76 per cent over the last fiscal year.”

Given the recent economic downturn, the society expects the increased demand to continue in the 2009/2010 fiscal year.

“The cuts to legal aid are not ones we want to make, and there is no doubt they will have a detrimental effect on some of society’s most vulnerable people,” Benton said. “But there is only a finite amount of money available for legal aid, and we have to do the best we can with what we have.”

One way LSS is trying to help people who might not otherwise receive legal aid or who might be affected by the recently announced changes is by continuing its duty counsel program.

“We originally thought our revenue shortfall would force cancellation of several duty counsel programs. But after a careful review of our 2009/2010 budget, we’ve found efficiencies to maintain most duty counsel services with some adjustments. I think this is good news for low-income British Columbians who find themselves in court.”

Most family law services will remain unchanged. Since 2002, family law representation services have been limited to financially eligible clients who are facing situations where their safety or the safety of their children is at risk, they have been denied access to their children on an ongoing basis, or there is a risk that a child will be permanently removed from the province. Legal aid for these and other urgent issues will continue to be available.

Dispute resolution (ADR) referrals, however, were eliminated after April 1, affecting about 600 applicants a year. Extended services, which allow lawyers extra time to complete cases, may be reduced depending on the volume of applications received.

The biggest change is the elimination April 1 of coverage for legal representation on minor criminal offences such as breach of probation, failure to appear and breach of bail. The Legal Services Society will consider providing representation for these offences to adults with mental disabilities that prevent them from stating their cases to the court.

Coverage for immigration and refugee matters will remain unchanged. Funding for immigration cases is, however, fixed by federal-provincial cost-sharing agreements. No increase to this funding is expected despite the increase in demand over the past year. As a result, LSS is introducing stricter merit screening of immigration applications to ensure spending remains within the available budget. This means that some cases that would have been covered in the past are not covered after April 1, 2009.

LSS is also reducing its operating expenses by cutting 38 staff positions in its Vancouver and Surrey offices April 30, involving staff at all levels.

The society’s numerous community outreach programs and public legal information services will remain largely unchanged, except for some staff reductions.