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Lawyers in British Columbia who deal with legal aid cases recently halted their services as a way to pressure the government to increase funding for the system. Members of the Trial Lawyers Association of BC said that “government funding for legal aid has remained the same for 23 years despite inflation and population growth.” This deeply impacts people who are not able to afford a lawyer, as they are denied any legal assistance and their access to justice is jeopardized.
About 40 percent of the people who face criminal charges end up representing themselves because they don’t meet the required conditions to acquire legal aid approval. A staggering number of people in family courts and small claims courts are left without any lawyers.
The government provides $56 million a year for legal aid and the association is urging the government to expand the amount that is directed to legal aid from a tax on the fees of the lawyers. British Columbia lawyers argue that the revenue from the tax was always meant to go exclusively to legal aid. Back in the 1990s, the legal aid budget was sufficient to get everyone a lawyer, however, that is no longer the case.
Justice Minister Suzanne Anton refuted the assertion that the tax was meant to be used exclusively for legal aid, saying, “there is a general misunderstanding that provincial sales tax collected on legal services is being misdirected to general revenue,” and that while the government back then did recognize that the revenue from tax would compensate the costs of legal aid, the tax was never really meant to fund legal aid exclusively. She added that the legal aid budget has been upped to about $74.5 million this year.
However, that still doesn’t match the budget of a decade ago when it stood at around $90 million. New Democrat Attorney General critic, Leonard Krog, criticized the Liberal government for seeking to cut expenditures to the detriment of the British Columbians with low incomes. He argued that getting legal aid when a person has low income has become virtually impossible.
Everyone deserves to have a lawyer at their side when the need arises, and the lawyers at League and Williams support the call for improved access to lawyers via legal aid and join the call for adequate legal aid funding.
(Source: B.C. lawyers withdraw services to protest lack of legal aid funding, The Vancouver Sun, July 7, 2014)