2011 Rally in Robes for funding to Legal Aid
November 30, 2011: "The war between the government and legal stake-holders over the integrity of B.C. courts is becoming much more public and acrimonious.

Lawyers across the province are sporting light blue ribbons on their robes today as a sign they have become 'soldiers in the Battle for Legal Aid.'"

They rallied outside several courthouses in BC to mark the campaign today, Nov 30, 2011.

"In January, the lawyers will step up protests against provincial underfunding of the legal system by withdrawing duty counsel services.

On hand in courthouses to provide quick assistance to the poor, duty counsel won't be available for one week in January, two weeks in February, three weeks in March and all of April.

The lawyers' job action, how-ever, will exacerbate the already over-crowded and strained Provincial Court system, where it already takes too long to handle cases.

As of March, six of every 10 adult criminal cases pending in Provincial Court were over the 180-day completion guide-line suggested by the Supreme Court of Canada. Some 15 per cent of those cases have been pending for more than 18 months.

The bar and bench have been quietly feuding with Victoria for years and the conflict is a key reason the attorney-general's office has been a revolving door. Earlier this month, B.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Bauman fired a warning shot across the Liberals' bow, saying the legal system was on the verge of crisis.

In a sharp speech to the bar, he cited the shortage of judges, lack of support staff and other resource issues as hampering both the provincial and supreme courts.

There are roughly 200 fewer court services staff than there were three years ago - fewer clerks, fewer registry workers, fewer sheriffs. It can take up to six months to get a court order in some registries.

He drew comparisons with U.S. courts that are in dire straits and implementing emergency measures.

Without more money, B.C. courts face similar difficulties, Bauman warned, and the sys-tem could be damaged beyond repair if the government doesn't act.

In particular, the Trial Lawyers Association says a decade of severe legal-aid cutbacks has had significant repercussions and far too many needy people are not receiving help.

There is grave concern access to justice now is being affected and faith in the system undermined.

Earlier this year, Vancouver lawyer Len Doust released a report that said tens of millions of dollars were needed just to resuscitate the ailing legal-aid system.

He toured the province con-ducting hearings and concluded the government should treat legal aid as an essential service and restore funding.

But that would appear to be an expensive pipe dream - and it is difficult to see the Liberal administration changing course.

Under former premier Gordon Campbell, the government displayed little sympathy for the legal community and ignored its censure.

Lawyers in a few spots across the province have carried out similar service withdrawals but they had little effect.

The crux of the problem is there is no single solution to the issues that beset the legal system - there needs to be a basket of solutions that include procedural changes, pay freezes for some and more money for others.

The defence bar, for example, is angry because they haven't had a legal-aid raise in 20 years - in fact, they complain that between 1999 and 2005 the tariff was lowered from $80 to $72 an hour. At the same time, however, judges and Crown lawyer salaries have all risen dramatically..."


imulgrew@vancouversun.com
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