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BC trial lawyers withdraw services to draw attention to 'dire' legal aid funding

Starting today, hundreds of defence lawyers across B.C. will refuse to accept stalking cases referred through legal aid, in an effort to compel the provincial government to increase legal aid funding and expand services for people in need.

The action will mean those involved in such cases who can't afford to pay a lawyer may be forced to represent themselves.

"We don't want them to represent themselves, but it's a way to draw attention to the issue," said Bentley Doyle, communications director for the Trial Lawyers Association of B.C. "It's just that dire of a situation... (lawyers) can't represent people properly with the limited amount of funding in the system."

"About half the things in this courthouse are unpaid for. Our trial confirmations, our pre-trial conferences... we just don't get paid to go visit people in pre-trial centres, read through vast amounts of documents of disclosure, none of that," co-chair of the association's Legal Aid Action Committee Phil Rankin told media outside the Provincial Courthouse on Main St. in Vancouver yesterday. Rankin stood in front of a group of about 30 robed lawyers holding signs that read "Fund Legal Aid Now."

"It's just basically the time you're in court, and that is not what lawyering is about. Lawyering requires preparation, it requires meeting your client, it requires reading thoroughly through documents, it requires looking up the law."

Provincial cuts to legal aid over the past decade have been widely denounced by several legal advocacy groups.

Most of the lawyers involved in the withdrawal of services "seem to agree that a sum of approximately $40 million more into legal aid (administered by the Legal Services Society) would be a good starting point," Doyle clarified via email.

A provincial tax on legal services introduced in the 1990s generates approximately $140 million a year, said Doyle, and less than half of that is reinvested in B.C.'s legal aid budget today.

However, B.C.'s Minister of Justice and Attorney General Shirley Bond clarified today that funding for the Legal Services Society is not connected to that provincial tax. The tax was collected as PST, but was not charged under the HST. It will be collected again when the province transitions back to PST, a government spokesperson confirmed.

"Although when the tax was imposed in the 1990s, the government of the day suggested that it would be used to fund (legal services), that has never actually been the case," Bond wrote in an emailed statement.

Bond added assurances that the ministry is "supporting the Legal Services Society in their efforts to ensure individuals who require legal aid representation can access services."

Currently, B.C. invests almost $70 million a year in legal aid and the government added $2.1 million last year, Bond noted.

In October, the B.C. government announced a 10-point action plan for justice reform in the province, after a government-ordered report by lawyer Geoffrey Cowper released earlier this year identified a "culture of delay" plaguing the system.

"Legal aid delivery is an important aspect of the justice system and that was why I asked (the Legal Services Society) to provide advice on how they could reform service delivery to contribute to justice reform. In response to the Cowper report, we are pursuing an action plan that will help us achieve quicker access to justice for both victims and accused. We are going to look at systemic reform and examine why these challenges exist before simply adding more money," Bond stated.

Today's action is the latest in a series of service withdrawals attempting to draw attention to legal aid funding. Duty counsel, which usually represents people without lawyers or those in court for the first time, withdrew services intermittently from January to April this year.

Lawyers have also refused riot-related cases as part of the protest, and they plan to refuse out-of-custody sexual assault cases beginning mid-January 2013.

Robyn Smith reports for The Tyee.

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