Attorney general says legal aid needs fresh review from user perspective

Legal aid lawyers say funding needed to keep lawyers in system

B.C.’s Ministry of Attorney General says a new review of the province’s legal aid system is justified by a need to take a fresh look at service models from a user’s perspective.

“As government brings almost $30 million in new funding online, we want to make sure we're using these new resources efficiently, and considering new models of legal service delivery to legal aid clients,”the ministry said in a statement Oct. 5. “It makes sense for us to look at various models to help inform future decision about the investment of services for citizens.”

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Legal aid lawyers, however, say the system won’t work for users if lawyers aren’t receiving enough money to make it work.

Attorney General David Eby on Oct. 4 announced the review to be conducted by lawyer Jamie Maclaren.

Maclaren’s work includes examining caseload demand, differing legal aid models, duty counsel, legal clinics, major case coverage, paralegals, trends in legal aid needs and models used in other areas.

But Maclaren’s work will not review what some believe to be the most important aspects of the legal aid system.

Left out of the terms of reference but mentioned on the government website are the limitations.

“The scope of this engagement process is limited to legal aid service delivery models,” the website said. “Mr. Maclaren’s report will not include recommendations on other aspects of British Columbia’s legal aid system, such as client eligibility criteria, area scope of coverage, and rates of pay for legal aid lawyers.”

Many of the issues were covered in the work of veteran lawyer Len Doust in his report on the province’s legal assistance system, delivered to the BC Liberal government in 2011 after 10 months’ work.

Doust made nine recommendations.

Included were suggestions legal aid be recognized as an essential public service; that core services and priorities be defined; that financial eligibility be modernized and expanded; that regional legal aid centres and innovative service delivery be established; and that public engagement and political dialogue be expanded.

He further advocated an increase in long-term, stable funding; that the system be proactive, dynamic, and strategic; that there be greater collaboration between public and private legal aid service providers; and that legal aid providers receive more support.

However, the ministry said, “government has made considerable progress in improving legal aid service delivery in the many years since the Doust report was released,” with many of his recommendations having been addressed.

The ministry said Victoria is providing additional funding of over $26 million over three years to Legal Services Society to increase legal aid services – “the most significant lift since 2002.”

Members of the province’s legal community don’t believe another review is needed.

Richard Fowler of the Association of Legal Aid Lawyers said the system has been “studied to death.”

Fowler’s association, the Trial Lawyers Association of B.C., along with the Canadian Bar Association – B.C. Branch and the Legal Services Society (LSS) all stress the fees legal aid lawyers receive are a primary issue that needs addressing.

All stress that a system won’t work for users if the lawyers aren’t there to make it work.

“Current rates do not provide adequate compensation for lawyers to meet the needs of legal aid clients and are not comparable to rates paid by government for similar legal services,” said the LSS, which operates legal aid, in a May 11 memo titled ‘inadequate tariffs.”

Fowler said lawyers are leaving legal aid work because they cannot support the costs associated with running such a practice.

Maclaren is accepting submissions until Nov. 23. His report, with recommendations, is due Dec. 31.

 

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