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Richard Fowler, Association of Legal Aid Lawyers (ALL) spokesperson

B.C. legal aid deal speaks well of government’s commitment to system: lawyers’ group

Tuesday, April 02, 2019 @ 10:42 AM | By Ian Burns

People relying on legal aid in British Columbia can breathe a sign of relief as the B.C. government has agreed to support the development of a new framework for the system, thus ending a threatened strike by legal aid lawyers in the province.

The B.C. government and the provincial Legal Services Society (LSS), which administers legal aid, announced a one-time grant of $7.9 million on March 29. The funding — $4 million from the government and $3.9 million from LSS — will be used to increase payments to legal aid lawyers until Oct. 31, 2019.

B.C. Attorney General David Eby

Attorney General David Eby

Attorney General David Eby said the funding will ensure lawyers continue to provide legal aid services to those most in need, while the government, LSS and the Association of Legal Aid Lawyers (ALL) negotiate an agreement for long-term, sustainable legal aid funding.

“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,” he said. “Legal aid lawyers provide services to some of the most vulnerable people in the province, and we will continue to work with LSS to address the historical underfunding of legal aid.”

The ALL, whose membership includes over 500 lawyers who take on legal aid cases in the province, had planned to begin withdrawing their services April 1. Spokesperson Richard Fowler said he was “happy on a number of levels” with the agreement, noting it “recognizes the important work that legal aid lawyers do and how they have been historically undercompensated for that work.”

The new money amounts to an approximately 25 per cent increase in the tariff paid to legal aid lawyers, said Fowler.

Richard Fowler, Association of Legal Aid Lawyers (ALL) spokesperson

Richard Fowler, Fowler & Blok

“In the short term it means there is no disruption in services, and in the long term it shows the government is taking our issues seriously. There’s optimism going forward that legal aid will be funded in the way it needs to be,” he said. “So, I really commend the attorney general for recognizing the importance of legal aid and supporting these negotiations and this interim agreement. I think it speaks well of this government’s commitment to legal aid that we were able to achieve this interim agreement.”

Fowler, who also practises criminal law with Fowler & Blok in Vancouver, said the government and ALL are committed to negotiating a long-term deal that considers all aspects of legal aid. He noted ALL has given the government a proposal to fix legal aid by injecting approximately $100 million in the system, increasing the tariff paid to lawyers taking legal aid cases and expanding eligibility to touch on more areas of the law.

“An important thing we recognize is 30 years of neglect is not going to be answered overnight. We realize it is going to take time and is going to take detailed negotiations,” he said. “But young lawyers are being discouraged by law schools from going into criminal law because you can’t make a living at it, and lawyers now are graduating with huge debt loads. These are things that will have to be discussed and are set out in detail in our proposal.”

The Trial Lawyers Association of British Columbia (TLABC) said the move to increase legal aid funding was a “small step in the right direction.”

“TLABC calls upon David Eby to commit to long-term increased funding and reforms to B.C.’s legal aid system that serves the most vulnerable in B.C.,” TLABC president Ron Nairne said. “We continue to stand with ALL in their effort to fight for access to justice in B.C. It is essential that the government make the necessary reforms to ensure our province’s court system protects the rights of all.”

Canadian Bar Association, BC Branch (CBABC) president Margaret Mereigh said she was “very pleased” the agreement had been reached.

“Long-term sustainable funding is needed,” she said. “We look forward to hearing the government’s plan for a funding model that will address the ongoing issues of eligibility, scope of coverage and tariff within B.C.’s legal aid system.”