Cash injection spares refugees from losing legal aid — for now

Another emergency injection of cash from the federal government has saved refugees and immigrants in B.C. from losing access to legal aid, but the Legal Services Society says the uncertainty around its funding is an untenable situation.

The federal Justice Department agreed to give the society an additional $368,880 to provide legal aid to immigrants and refugees until March 31, 2018. This is in addition to the $580,101 the federal government provided in July, with the aim of ensuring legal aid until December.

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Over the past 15 months, the society has announced three times that it would stop accepting applications for immigration and refugee cases if the federal government did not provide money to cover the dramatic increase in refugee claims.

“This is crazy, the level of uncertainty,” said Mark Benton, the society’s executive director. “It creates such a significant uncertainty for the clients we service and for the lawyers who, at some sacrifice, take on refugee cases.”

In a statement issued Friday, B.C. Attorney General David Eby thanked federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould for the funding.

“As an open, diverse and welcoming place, British Columbia is experiencing a significant increase in demand for legal aid from refugees fleeing war, oppression and persecution,” Eby said.

“We appreciate the recognition of this pressure by the federal government and its help to ensure that we can maintain legal aid services for these vulnerable individuals and families.”

The Legal Services Society provided legal aid in 860 refugee cases from 2016 to 2017, more than double the 350 cases handled from 2013 to 2014.

It receives $1.7 million annually for immigrant and refugee legal aid — $900,000 from the federal government and $800,000 from the provincial government. However, based on the influx in refugee claims, the society predicts it will need $3.6 million for 2018-19.

Benton hopes next year’s provincial and federal budgets include additional long-term funding for immigrant and refugee legal aid.

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