Legal aid funding urgent, advocates say
TheGlobeandMail.com – News/National
Published Thursday, Oct. 14, 2010. Terri Theodore, Vancouver – The Canadian Press
Canada’s legal system should be one of the pillars of the country’s social safety net, but instead it is withering from a lack of resources, say legal aid advocates.
As the country’s justice ministers meet in Vancouver this week, lawyer Melina Buckley hopes to hear promises of more funding for legal aid and solutions to the lack of legal help for those most in need across the country.
The issue is on the agenda for ministers from the federal, provincial and territorial governments. But that agenda is also packed with other important topics such as Canada’s missing women, national standards for conducted energy weapons and an RCMP contract coming due in 2012.
A report done by Ms. Buckley for the Canadian Bar Association was released in June and calls the legal aid issue a “silent crisis.”
The report, titled “Moving Forward on Legal Aid,” calls for dramatic renewal of the legal aid system in Canada with a five-point plan that includes making it an essential public service like health care.
While everyone knows the impact of health and education to society, Ms. Buckley said the importance of legal aid in the social fabric hasn’t been understood.
Research in the last decade has shown that legal problems affect health and social well-being over all, she said.
“So when our courts aren’t able to function properly because of underfunding and when people aren’t able to get access to them, … we pay for it in other parts of the system,” she said.
But because governments don’t make the connection between increased social or health costs, those costs are often invisible, Ms. Buckley said.
The federal government began a series of funding reductions to legal aid in the 1990s and cuts by provincial governments followed. In 2002 the B.C. government chopped its funding by 38 per cent.
The problem in British Columbia is so difficult that several legal groups, including the Law Society of B.C. and the provincial branch of the Canadian Bar Association, launched a Public Commission on Legal Aid to tour the province in search of solutions.
Even Canada’s highest judge warned government about the problem. Last Friday, Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin told an International Bar Association conference in Vancouver that access to justice is the hallmark of a stable and peaceful society.
“Without access to justice, individuals will turn to extra-legal and violent means to solve their disputes,” she said.
Justice Minister Rob Nicholson was unavailable for comment. However his media spokesperson said in an e-mail the government is pouring more funding into legal aid.
Starting from the 2007 budget, the government increased annual funding for criminal legal aid by 37 per cent to almost $112-million each year.
An internal Justice Department document obtained by The Canadian Press and released last week said too many people are showing up in Canadian courts without a lawyer.
The internal study found almost 13 per cent of those involved in criminal cases didn’t show up with a lawyer.
The study covered cases in 2006-2007 in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec, British Columbia and Nunavut.
Jamie Maclaren, executive director of Pro Bono Law of B.C., said in some ways legal aid is an easy issue to brush under the carpet, when people don’t make the obvious connections between legal aid and poverty, disabilities and family law.
Mr. Maclaren said there are many people in the system who desperately need legal representation and aren’t getting it.
“If your livelihood’s at stake, your job is threatened, your government benefits are at stake – those are the types of people we feel deserve representation.”
Instead, Mr. Maclaren said, those people are left to seek out pro bono help or to get the services of community advocates.
“It’s a huge population of vulnerable people who aren’t getting the legal representation they deserve,” he said. “It comes at huge social costs, that to a great extent can be avoided by proper investment in the front end of the problem.”
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