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Rights + Justice
BC Politics

‘It’s So Hard to Fight Back’: Citizens Hope NDP Gov’t Will Finally Fix Legal Aid

Attorney general says province is working to create new opportunities for justice.

By Andrew MacLeod 16 Oct 2018 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria and the author of All Together Healthy (Douglas & McIntyre, 2018). Find him on Twitter or reach him at

When a client stiffed Doreen Gee on a bill for work she’d done, she soon realized just how little recourse she had.

“I don’t know if I’m ever going to see my money,” Gee said. “It’s so hard to fight back when you can’t afford a lawyer.”

With British Columbia Attorney General David Eby recently ordering a review of the legal aid system, Gee’s story shows how extensive the need is. While in theory everyone has access to the legal system to settle disputes, in practice many lack the money to go that route.

And while legal aid will pay for lawyers in some circumstances, particularly for people facing serious criminal charges, its funding has been choked for decades and there are many cases like Gee’s for which it is unavailable.

Over the past three years Gee had regularly done writing work for the client, who she asked not to be named publicly due to fear that he would sue if she were quoted saying something negative about him.

In mid-September she was owed a little over a thousand dollars that she never received, she said. She acknowledged it might not be much money to some people, and that it’s little compared to what it would cost to hire a lawyer, but said for her it is about half of her monthly income.*

“That’s a hell of a lot of money to me,” she said. “I can’t afford to lose it.”

‘People have no recourse at all’

At 67 years old, the rest of Gee’s income comes from Old Age Security, the Guaranteed Income Supplement and a small CPP payment. The missed payment means she’s short of cash to pay her bills, she said.

She said she could not get Employment Insurance. Nor is she covered by the province’s Employment Standards Act either if considered an independent contractor.**

“People have no recourse at all,” she said. “There must be lots of people besides me caught up in this situation right now in B.C.”

Douglas King, the executive director of the Together Against Poverty Society in Victoria, when told of Gee’s story said “That is the perfect example of someone who has fallen through the cracks in the system.”

It’s unclear though, he said, whether the province’s review of legal aid will lead to more help for people like Gee.

Jamie Maclaren, a lawyer who was the founding executive director of Access Pro Bono, an organization that provides legal services for low-income clients, is doing that review.

The review is to “focus on the effectiveness and efficiencies of legal aid service delivery in British Columbia from the point of view of citizens who use legal aid services,” according to the government’s announcement, and Maclaren is to collect public feedback as part of his process.

King said Maclaren is very well respected in the non-profit and legal aid community. While there’s confidence he’ll do a great job on the report, that may not translate into fixing the system. “The bigger question is what is the government actually prepared to do.”

TAPS mainly helps with residential tenancy and income assistance cases, but there’s a need for broader legal help for people living in poverty, King said. “From our perspective, we hope civil legal aid funding is back on the table.”

The review is a step in the right direction, but fixing the system is long overdue, he said. There are competing needs, including an increase to legal aid payments to lawyers working on criminal cases.

“It’s a big hole,” he said. “They need to dig themselves out. We don’t know where we stand on the priority list... We certainly could use a lot of support. We never meet demand.”

New justice opportunities coming, says Eby

Whether or not it happens through the legal aid system, Eby said the government is working on creating opportunities for people like Gee to pursue justice.

“There’s a whole branch of the work that we’re doing that’s around assisting people in resolving their legal disputes who have a dispute that is below the level of what a lawyer would consider economically viable to take on,” he said.

The government is making reforms so that it will be easier for people to represent themselves when they are seeking to have court orders enforced, he said.

It’s also opening the civil resolution tribunal started by the BC Liberal government to more types of cases, including those involving co-op housing, non-profits and ICBC.

“We’re trying to recognize that people need solutions to their legal problems that may not involve [the] full B.C. Supreme Court with a lawyer,” Eby said. “That access to justice might be a quick and easy resolution through a tribunal.”

Eby said he knows from his work before entering politics with Pivot Legal Society and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association that there are various organizations that work hard to fill the gaps, including clinics run by law students, the Community Legal Assistance Society and the B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre.

“I saw how many legal services and how much was delivered by a very small number of people on very limited budgets through that model. They didn’t turn people away based on the type of legal action,” he said.

“They looked at the person as a whole in terms of the legal support they needed to get out of the problem they were facing, and I think that’s the big benefit of the clinical model.”

Long erosion of system

The problems with legal aid are well documented. A 2011 review headed by lawyer Leonard Doust, Foundation for Change: Report of the Public Commission on Legal Aid in British Columbia, found the system had been eroded over three decades.

A 40-per-cent budget cut over three years starting in 2002 to the Legal Services Society, which delivers legal aid, led to the closure of 45 offices across the province and the elimination of legal aid services for poverty law and family law, Doust wrote.

“Today, the legal aid system operates in a severely circumscribed environment,” he wrote seven years ago. “While LSS has prioritized the protection of its core services in an environment of insufficient and uncertain funding, it is clear to me that the legal aid system is failing to meet even the most basic needs of British Columbians.”

His nine recommendations included treating legal aid as an essential service and expanding the kinds of cases covered. “We can no longer avoid the fact that we are failing the most disadvantaged members of our community, those for whom legal aid exists within our province.”

King said he worries that the fact the government launched another review is a signal that they’re unprepared to commit the funding that’s needed.

“Some of us feel it’s quite obvious what needs to be changed and what needs to be funded with legal aid,” he said. “If it was a true commitment to truly refunding legal aid and having a properly funded system they wouldn’t need a review. They’d just do it.”

Vibrant sector has emerged, Eby says

The current review will be different from earlier ones that were typically done by lawyers in criminal practices or from large firms, Eby said. “While those lawyers definitely have perspectives that need to be taken into account around legal aid, I worry that we haven’t heard enough from practitioners who provide services to impoverished communities and low-income people and marginalized people.”

Much has changed in the time since the major cuts to legal aid, Eby said, including the way various organizations have filled the vacuum. “I want to recognize that that’s a reality, and that that’s a very vibrant sector, and maybe there’s a way we can support and enhance the capacity of that sector,” he said.

“As we start to provide additional funding to legal aid, I want to make sure that we’re not just rebuilding what was previously defunded,” he said. “While we’re refunding legal aid, there are lots of opportunities, I think, for us to maximize the delivery of services, and that’s what the review is about.”

Eby said the government is already committing more money to improve the system.

“I understand the frustration,” he said. “Doing a review instead of investing in services was something the previous administration did quite effectively to push off issues, but I can tell people that government is committed to $30 million over three years, and this review will assist us in spending that money most effectively to deliver services to the people they know need those services.”

Before the increase, the Legal Services Society had a budget of $80 million to deliver legal aid in 2015-2016, 91 per cent of which came from the provincial government, according to the society’s website.

As for Gee, over the Thanksgiving weekend she learned that the client who owes her money had filed for bankruptcy, making it that much harder for her to collect on the debt.

She said she’ll provide comments during the public consultation part of Maclaren’s review, but isn’t hopeful she’ll ever see the money she’s owed.

“The whole thing makes me realize what a terrible disparity there is in access to legal help,” Gee said, noting that people like the person who owes her seem to be able to afford lawyers. “It sets up a savage and oppressive society, quite frankly.”

*Story corrected Oct. 17 at 9:40 a.m.
**Story clarified Oct. 25 at 11 a.m.  [Tyee]

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