Lawyers in B.C. could walk off the job in November despite an announcement from the provincial government of a one-time grant aimed at developing a new approach to legal-aid funding.
Kamloops lawyer Graham Kay, who sits on the board of B.C.’s Association of Legal Aid Lawyers, said the $7.9-million grant is little more than a stop-gap.
“They’re calling it bridge financing,” Kay told KTW. “It’s payment for the lawyers for a six-month period, which would amount to about a 25 per cent increase in the rate lawyers are getting, taking into consideration that rate has been basically unchanged since 1992.”
In the meantime, Kay said, lawyers and the provincial government will continue to meet in an effort to come to a resolution. The grant funding will cover lawyer rates until mid-November.
Kay said three issues remain outstanding:
• who in B.C. is eligible for legal aid?
• which areas of law should be covered?
• how much should legal-aid lawyers be paid?
Kay said the effect of the stagnant legal-aid rate, when inflation and other cuts are accounted for, is a 60 per cent reduction since 1992.
He said the playing field is far from level in B.C. courtrooms when legal-aid remuneration is compared to ever-increasing salaries drawn by judges and prosecutors.
“When you look at per capita funding being reduced by 60 per cent, that means the whole system is in jeopardy,” Kay said. “You cannot have a functioning system when families and accused don’t have access to counsel, whereas Crown has virtually unlimited resources.”
Under the agreement announced last week, the province will provide $4 million and $3.9 million will come from the Legal Services Society, a non-profit organization that oversees legal aid.
“We recognize there is work to be done to improve the legal-aid system both for British Columbians and the counsel that represent them in court,'' Attorney General David Eby said. “Legal-aid lawyers provide services to some of the most vulnerable members of the province, and we will continue to work with LSS to address the historical underfunding of legal aid.''
Kay said B.C.’s legal-aid lawyers, who last month voted overwhelmingly in favour of job action, have deferred that action, meaning they could walk off the job in November if no resolution is found.