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Margaret Mereigh, president, Canadian Bar Association, B.C. Branch (CBABC)

B.C. bar association president ‘hesitantly optimistic’ about pledge to fund new legal clinics

Thursday, February 28, 2019 @ 6:43 AM | By Ian Burns

Last Updated: Thursday, February 28, 2019 @ 1:19 PM

The B.C. government announced plans to establish legal clinics across the province in its most recent budget, but details are scarce about their location or what areas of law they will provide services in.

The budget document, which was released Feb. 19, said government is providing funding to pilot legal clinics in up to eight communities throughout the province as a means of improving access to justice.

“In partnership with the Law Foundation of British Columbia, legal clinics will provide access to justice community programs and increase access to legal advice and advocacy,” the budget said.

But law foundation executive director Wayne Robertson said details about the clinics “have to be worked out over the next little while.”

“It’s not very well defined right now what exactly they are going to be doing,” he said. “We will probably have what kind of work the clinics are going to do sorted out by June. There are lots of access to justice needs out there so obviously the key focus of the work is getting legal help to people on the ground.”

Robertson said it would be hard to single out where the greatest need for any clinic would be in the province but noted there was a lot of need in poverty law, family law and Indigenous issues.

“Some of those concerns are being met by the community-based advocacy programs that we already fund, but the clinics will allow expanded services,” he said, noting the amount being dedicated to the clinics is $2 million.

Margaret Mereigh, president, Canadian Bar Association, B.C. Branch (CBABC)

Margaret Mereigh, president of the CBA, B.C. Branch

Margaret Mereigh, president of the Canadian Bar Association, B.C. Branch (CBABC), said she was “hesitantly optimistic” about the announcement on the clinics. She noted in the past the government has called for legal clinics which provide free legal advice and advocacy in poverty law, family law and criminal law in areas not covered by the provincial Legal Services Society for individuals who cannot afford a lawyer.

“[The plan to fund the clinics] sounds really positive and ambitious, but I’m not sure with $2 million being put to that what it can deliver,” she said. “I’m not sure this is speaking to the change we want to see in terms of where people need legal advocates.”

“But one item that many in the legal community are bemoaning is the lack of additional funding for legal aid. Mereigh noted there has only been one update in the tariff rate paid to legal aid lawyers since 1991.

“And when one looks at other players in the justice system, be it clerks, sheriffs, Crown counsel or judges, the same cannot be said,” she said. “I think another area where were going to have to look at is how legal aid funding is only provided in narrowly defined cases. We have so many families in need but the definition of cases that are eligible for legal aid is too restrictive.”

Kasari Govender, executive director, West Coast LEAF

Kasari Govender, executive director of West Coast LEAF

Kasari Govender, executive director of West Coast LEAF (Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund), said the budget “leaves disappointing gaps in services that will disproportionately impact women and other people impacted by gender-based discrimination.”

“This budget indicates political will to address poverty and implements some important measures to address income inequality. However, an effective poverty reduction plan must include investment in legal aid, pay equity and social assistance benefits,” she said. “The failure to properly fund family legal aid is particularly devastating for women leaving violent relationships.”

Govender added the piloting of the clinics across the province is positive, but said the dollars tentatively attached to this promise fall far short of “what would be required to create the kind of clinical legal clinic structure that is so desperately needed.”

“Moreover, there is no increase in investment in the civil legal aid system to reduce barriers to eligibility and increase services,” she said. “Future B.C. budgets must adequately invest in legal aid, meaningfully address woefully inadequate social assistance rates and address pay inequity.”

B.C. government officials did not respond by press time to The Lawyer’s Daily’s request for further information on the proposed legal clinics and legal aid funding.