The legal aid budget in B.C. was increased by $2.1 million or about 3.8 per cent on the eve of a staged service withdrawal by legal aid lawyers.

Legal aid lawyers begin service withdrawal

Aim of job action is to force province to increase funding

Legal aid lawyers have now started what they vow will be an escalating strike to press the province to increase funding.

It began this week with most lawyers who handle legal aid work refusing to represent new adult clients arrested on criminal charges who cannot afford their own representation.

The Jan. 1-7 scheduled withdrawal of duty counsel services expands to two weeks in the first half of February, followed by three weeks in March and then all four weeks of April.

The tactic by lawyers threatens to leave many more accused people unrepresented before the courts in order to bring the issue to a head.

“It’s not a step they came to lightly,” said Trial Lawyers Association of B.C. communications director Bentley Doyle.

“They’re concerned about leaving clients without help. They feel desperate and they hope it’s short-term pain for long-term gain.”

Legal aid funding has been cut by 27 per cent over the last decade, from $96 million in 2001 to about $67 million.

An extra $2.1 million announced Dec. 30 by the provincial government for child-related legal aid will not make a significant difference, Doyle said.

“Far too many citizens right now do not have legal representation,” he said.

Doyle said legal aid should be considered an essential service in B.C. and therefore should be properly funded.

The government takes in about $100 million annually in through its provincial tax on legal fees, but the money is not directed toward legal aid, which the tax was created to fund in the first place.

Many people before the courts who previously got legal aid assistance are now forced to represent themselves, causing more slowdowns in an already severely congested legal system.

A public commission into legal aid last year concluded B.C. is failing its most disadvantaged citizens and seriously lags other jurisdictions.

The provincial government says its new Family Law Act – which encourages mediation and other measures to cut down on court time – will help.