08 March 2011

Public Commission on Legal Aid Releases Report

The Public Commission on Legal Aid in British Columbia, a joint project of the Law Society of British Columbia and the Canadian Bar Association British Columbia, the Law Foundation and other groups, has released its Final Report (PDF) today.

In this report, the Commissioner, prominent Vancouver lawyer Len Doust Q.C., summarizes the history of legal aid in this province, from its establishment in the early 1970s to the critical budget cuts which began under Gordon Campbell's stewardship in 2002, the evidence gathered since the commission was established in June 2010, and finds that:
"Based on the evidence presented to me, I cannot come to any conclusion other than the services provided in British Columbia today are too little, their longevity or consistency too uncertain. This result is the consequence of the cutbacks and lack of sufficient and consistent financing, even though LSS has done its very best, and in my view has done everything possible, to accommodate the needs within their limited budgetary restrictions."
Mr. Doust reaches a number of specific conclusions about the current state of legal aid. To quote from the report:
  • The legal aid system is failing needy individuals and families, the justice system, and our communities.
  • Legal information is not an adequate substitute for legal assistance and representation.
  • Timing of accessing legal aid is key.
  • There is a broad consensus concerning the need for innovative, client-focused legal aid services.
  • Steps must be taken to meet legal aid needs in rural communities.
  • More people should be eligible for legal aid.
  • Legal aid should be fully funded as an essential public service.
The Commission's nine recommendations are these:
  1. "The Legal Services Society Act," the legislation which establishes the Legal Services Society, the organization which provides legal aid in BC, "should be amended to include a statement clearly recognizing legal aid as an essential public service."
  2. "A new approach to defining core public legal aid services and priorities should be developed which merges the traditional legal categories approach (e.g., criminal law, family law, and poverty law) with an approach based on the fundamental interests of the most disadvantaged clients, where the need is most pressing and the benefit is likely to be the greatest."
  3. "Financial eligibility criteria should be modified so that more needy individuals qualify for legal aid."
  4. Regional legal aid centres should be established and "legal aid service delivery should be modeled on evidence-based best practices, which take into account the needs of economically disadvantaged clients for lasting outcomes and the geographic and cultural barriers they face in accessing public services."
  5. "Justice system stakeholders ... should continue to take steps to expand public engagement and political dialogue on the urgent need to renew the legal aid system in British Columbia."
  6. "The provincial and federal governments must increase funding for legal aid and provide this funding through a stable, multi-year granting process."
  7. "The legal aid system should be more proactive, dynamic and strategic in its approach."
  8. "Mechanisms to facilitate collaboration between public legal aid providers and private service providers ... should be established on both a province-wide and regional basis."
  9. "Steps should be taken to develop, support, and recognize community advocates, legal advocates, paralegals, and lawyers who provide both public and private legal aid services in order to ensure the quality of these services."
It will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that I support all of Mr. Doust's recommendations unequivocally; it will also come as no surprise that Attorney General Barry Penner takes a different view, as the Globe and Mail has recently reported. The problem likely comes down to the money the federal and provincial governments are prepared to devote to the justice system versus its major funding competitors, health care, education and corporate tax cuts.