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Legal-aid dispute threatens hundreds of criminal trials

Legal-aid lawyers across B.C. are threatening to adjourn hundreds of criminal trials if they can’t reach a funding agreement with government.
Victoria courthouse.

Legal-aid lawyers across B.C. are threatening to adjourn hundreds of criminal trials if they can’t reach a funding agreement with government.

The lawyers plan to adjourn six weeks of criminal cases, from shoplifting to murders, in courtrooms across the province from Oct. 7 to 10, if the Legal Services Society of B.C. can’t reach a deal with the Attorney General.

“The [society] cannot assure us they will pay for work from Feb. 17 to March 31, 2014. There has been no announcement of new funding,” Paul Pearson, co-chairman of the Canadian Bar Association’s criminal justice section in Victoria, said Tuesday.

“No one likes the prospect of delaying trials. No one likes the idea of not working during that time period. No one is going to get paid. But the alternative is telling the government, ‘If you underfund legal aid, everyone will just work for free.’ It’s a totally unacceptable situation.”

In a brief dated September 2013, the society advised lawyers not to book any criminal or child protection cases from Feb. 17 to March, 31, 2014. The brief advised lawyers that the society is facing a $2.5-million deficit in the criminal tariff and a $500,000 deficit in the child-protection tariff this year.

The funding crisis has been driven by federal legislative changes such as the Safe Streets and Communities Act, the provincial court backlog-reduction initiative, and the appointments of judges and prosecutors, which have made the courts more efficient. The time it takes to get to trial has been cut in half at many courts.

The society has been discussing the issue with the Ministry of Justice since May. The Legal Services Society board met with Attorney General Suzanne Anton and her deputy ministers last Thursday and again on Monday.

The board is still having meetings with the attorney general and will make its final decision on Thursday about reducing services.

Meanwhile, lawyers are planning their provincewide adjournment applications to protest years of underfunding. Serious cases will be adjourned, including sexual assault trials and murder trials, Pearson said.

“How do you explain that to a murder victim’s family, that their trial is being adjourned because the government won’t pay the bills?”

In 1993, a special tax on legal services was introduced to provide legal aid services to the poor. But year after year, the government diverts the money to other purposes, said defence lawyer Michael Mulligan.

“The amount of money collected by the tax quickly wound up exceeding the amount of money the government was willing to pass on to the Legal Services Society. When this government was first elected, they radically cut funding to the society, but continued to collect the tax at the same level,” Mulligan said.

The society has said it would continue to take applications, issue referrals and authorize payments when there is exceptional risk to a client, but it would not pay for the majority of criminal or child-protection services provided by lawyers during this period.

Last week, top officials in B.C.’s Justice Ministry sent an email to staff warning they’re at risk of blowing their budget and will have to look at extra cuts to keep expenses in line.