Legal aid renewal

The Legal Services Society’s plan for a legal aid program that helps clients reach stable and valued solutions to their legal problems is heading into a new phase, says the society’s executive director.

“Six years ago, the Legal Services Society was in a crisis situation,” LSS Executive Director Mark Benton told the Law Society’s Benchers at their April 5 meeting. “Today we can see the progress we’ve made, and we have a clear sense of where we’re going.”

What’s next is legal aid renewal — a new strategic priority “to ensure the society’s services meet client needs,” explained Geoffrey Cowper, QC, who chairs the LSS board of directors. “We must meet the challenge of determining what we do best, what is of enduring value, and what clients need. And we need to look at how we can best equip lawyers to serve our clients as we move into the future.”

Mike Falkins  
Mark Benton and Geoff Cowper, QC discuss legal aid renewal on the streets of Vancouver. Geoff was first appointed to the LSS board in 1997 and has been its chair since 2005. Mark joined LSS in 1983 and was appointed executive director in 2002. He is acknowledged as an authority on the right to counsel and a leader for his work in Crown agency administration and governance.

A few years ago, the challenges were obvious as the Legal Services Society reframed its services to respond to reduced resources. Since then, it has had several successes, ranging from legal aid tariff improvements to new quality assurance initiatives and innovative programs such as family duty counsel, LawLINE, and the family law website.

Cowper, a partner at Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP, noted that the society has learned important lessons from programs such as family duty counsel, which began as a limited service when reduced funding limited the services that could be offered to family law clients.

“The results were a complete surprise,” Cowper said. “Thorough evaluations show limited services such as family duty counsel can get excellent results and early, enduring, and valued solutions for clients. We learned that we get better, longer-lasting results when clients are closer to the driver’s seat.”

Cowper emphasized that the society still firmly believes lawyers often do their best work when they stand as advocates between the client and the state. “But we must be mindful of what clients want and need, and remember that after their legal process is finished, they should return to their families and to society better able to manage their day-to-day lives.”

“We need to look at how to be good lawyers and make a positive difference for clients. We need to re-examine, for example, our role in helping chronic offenders — not just with their immediate legal issue, but with helping them get on track so they won’t require our services again and again.”

Cowper recalled some of the moving stories told by lawyers at a recent LSS awards dinner held to honour outstanding services. “It’s clear that the things we professionals remember as our best efforts are where we have made a positive difference in people’s lives. LSS wants to help more of our lawyers to be able to say that the work they did for our clients enriched their own lives and careers.”

To achieve this, added Benton, the Legal Services Society must “provide lawyers with broader resources and support so they can take a more integrated approach to solving clients’ legal problems.”

“This isn’t to undermine our responsibility to represent clients when that’s what they need; rather it’s to reach into a broader domain to get the best possible results for them,” he explained.

Benefiting clients

LSS is developing strategies for legal aid renewal in BC. These strategies will build on the society’s recent successes to ensure programs in all areas of law benefit clients. This involves developing concrete steps to ensure legal aid:

  • helps clients reach positive, lasting solutions to their legal problems;
  • forms part of a holistic approach to meeting clients’ overall needs in a broad social context;
  • encourages clients to participate constructively in solving or avoiding legal problems; and
  • is available where, and when, clients need the services.