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Law Society of British Columbia (LSBC) president Craig Ferris

B.C. law society considering ‘targeted’ approach on COVID-19 relief: president

Wednesday, June 03, 2020 @ 9:03 AM | By Ian Burns

The COVID-19 pandemic was top of mind for benchers of the Law Society of British Columbia (LSBC) as they met for their second virtual meeting, with the law society president noting the society is currently looking at spending approximately $3 million to assist members who have been hit hard over the past few months.

President Craig Ferris noted the “angst and anxiety” that many in the legal profession were feeling as the pandemic shut courtroom doors and kept clients away from offices.

Law Society of B.C. president Craig Ferris

“Although our plans are not formally formulated yet, I just wanted to make it clear to people publicly that the B.C. law society is considering a targeted approach to assist our members which have been hard hit by COVID-19,” he said at the May 29 bencher meeting. “We are expecting to invest somewhere around $3 million in this targeted approach, through the reduction or elimination of fees for those of our members have been hardest hit.”

But Ferris said he felt the pandemic has the potential to be an “accelerator of innovation and change.” He noted the significant access to justice concerns that have been voiced by many prior to COVID-19 hitting, and added it is his hope the licensed paralegal task force, which is looking at the feasibility of giving paralegals a limited scope of practice, will report in the fall.

“People simply do not have access to legal services — and I think we know from the legal aid debate when people have access to legal services the whole system works better,” he said. “It is more efficient, and people are happier with the outcome. When people are left to the do-it-yourself model, the system clogs up, they get poor results and they lose confidence in the system.”

Ferris said he also wanted to make it clear that “no one is trying to hurt lawyers” as a result of the moves.

“The fact of the matter is lawyers are not doing this work and don’t want to do this work, so people are left without any advice at all,” he said. “In my view this is both morally wrong, and it puts a great strain on public institutions. The situation today with respect to access is really unacceptable and the law society needs to be the solution and not to be seen to be an impediment.”

B.C. Attorney General David Eby

B.C. Attorney General David Eby also spoke at the meeting, in order to give the benchers an idea of what is happening in terms of the opening of courtrooms and court locations “so that we can move from the most urgent to regularly scheduled matters in the courts.” He noted all Supreme Court and provincial court locations are being assessed to ensure they meet minimal health and safety requirements.

“This is ensuring there is enough space in the room for people to be two metres apart, that there is hand sanitation available and that the seats in the gallery are taped off to ensure people aren’t sitting too close,” he said. “That also involves potentially moving furniture in the courtroom so that witnesses and others can maintain personal distance.”

Eby said his expectation was that the province would have a limited number of courtrooms open over the next few weeks but noted there has been a significant backlog in provincial courts as a result of the pandemic, and in order to deal with that there will have to be “a lot of virtual hearings” even when things return to relative normalcy.

“So that means over the phone or potentially by video, and while it is certainly not possible to use these technologies for all matters, with our work and the judiciary’s work, and accommodation where possible by counsel and clients, we do expect using these non in-person appearances will help us reduce and prevent the backlog from reaching levels where the justice system no longer functions,” he said.

The provincial Ministry of the Attorney General has been working hard on technological enhancements and it has been following “at an accelerated pace” the courts’ digital transformation strategy, said Eby, but challenges remain in place.

“Courts have telephones which require a separate phone line for everybody to do a teleconference, and there are bandwidth challenges in the courts and notably in our correctional institutions and police detachments across the province,” he said. “Ministry staff have also been developing facility recovery guideline — it is a phased reintroduction of new and additional matters in the courts.”

Eby said there will be a “very clear list of expectations” for the public when attending courts as regular matters are reintroduced.

“One of the goals of the judiciary and my office is to ensure the courts remain open to the media and the public as well,” he said. “Obviously this complicates matters more than if we kept the courts closed, but I have heard very clearly from the judiciary that this is important to them, that the public maintain access in a safe way to the courts.”

But there is “a lot of work left to do,” said Eby.

“I don’t think it is surprising to anyone that this is a massive task,” he said. “The volume of the backlog is incredibly concerning to me, and I don’t presume to speak for the courts, but I imagine that it would be concerning for them as well. It is accumulating and we need to address it in an urgent matter.”

The next bencher meeting is scheduled for July 10.

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