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New board chair 'optimistic' withdrawal of legal aid service can be averted

The new Legal Services Society's board chair Tom Christensen, formerly a BC Liberal cabinet minister, says he's optimistic a solution will be found for legal aid's current crisis in British Columbia.

The LSS is short $3 million and anticipates running out of money for criminal and child protection cases six weeks before the end of the current fiscal year. Earlier in September, LSS chief executive officer Mark Benton suggested lawyers should avoid booking hearings for such cases between Feb. 17 and March 31, 2014, The Tyee reported.

"Finding a solution is a challenge," Christensen wrote in a Sept. 25 newsletter to legal aid lawyers. "Senior staff from LSS and the ministry have been engaged in discussions for some time now. Last Thursday, the entire LSS board met with Attorney General Suzanne Anton, QC, and her deputy ministers, and Mark Benton and I met with the Attorney General and her deputies again on Monday."

The board and Anton are focused on finding a solution "that poses no risk to our clients and does not compromise your work as counsel," Christensen wrote. "It is clear that there is a common interest in maintaining an effective justice system."

He said he is "optimistic that a solution will be found in the immediate future."

Christensen was elected chair of the LSS board on Sept. 20 and replaces David Crossin, who had reached the six-year limit in the position. Christensen was an MLA for Okanagan-Vernon for two terms starting in 2001 and was minister of children and family development, education and Aboriginal relations and reconciliation.

Before getting into politics, he worked as a lawyer, at times taking legal aid cases.

"I know how much people need our help," he wrote. "I also know what it's like to sit on the minister's side of the table when resources are scarce and the demands are important. That experience, together with the clear commitment of the LSS board and the Attorney General to finding a solution, provides the foundation for my optimism."

Christensen attributed the budget shortfall to recent measures to make the courts more efficient, which have resulted in LSS paying for more services sooner than expected. The LSS is required by law to balance its annual budget.

Benton's earlier brief identified the federal Safe Streets and Communities Act as another factor driving up the demand for legal aid.

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

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