Legal aid for immigrants, refugees saved by last-minute cash

Refugees and immigrants in B.C. are no longer at risk of losing legal-aid services, after an emergency injection of cash from the federal government.

The federal Department of Justice gave the Legal Services Society of B.C. an additional $385,000, which will allow it to provide legal aid for refugees and immigrants until November.

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The society announced in June that it would stop accepting applications for immigration and refugee cases effective Aug. 1, because government funding has not kept pace with the dramatic increase in refugee claims.

Legal Aid Ontario also warned it would be cutting legal aid for refugees and immigrants in November if federal funding did not increase.

The B.C. society’s executive director, Mark Benton, said he’s been told the federal government is in discussions with the provinces about the future of legal aid for this vulnerable group.

Benton anticipates a longer-term federal-funding announcement before November.

“So while at one level, it’s just an interim fix, it’s one that preserves the important service for several months while the governments focus on where some of the solutions may lie,” he said.

Benton said news of the impending cuts worried those in the immigrant and refugee community who risked deportation if their cases proceeded without a lawyer.

“I can tell you we have heard from individuals and the communities that support them about how critical the service is and how distressed those people were that it might be discontinued.”

Benton said proper legal representation ensures refugee cases move quickly through the system, warning of delays at the Immigration and Refugee Board if people have to represent themselves.

“It’s really about meeting Canadian charter requirements and dealing with this efficiently and effectively so people aren’t in the system longer than they need to be,” he said. “And of course, people who aren’t refugees are removed in a timely way.”

David Lau, the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society’s executive director, said news of the additional federal funding is a relief.

“Hopefully, this news is followed up with a long-term commitment for multi-year funding to [the Legal Services Society] and is linked to reasonable service demands,” Lau said in an email.

“With an increasingly chaotic political situation in the U.S., Canada could become the beneficiary of many great potential Canadians. We should be readying for this and perhaps begin planning proactively in order to turn this to our national advantage.”

Under the legal-aid system, immigrants and refugees who are eligible for legal assistance are connected with private lawyers, who are funded by the Legal Services Society.

The society receives $1.7 million annually for immigrant and refugee legal aid — $900,000 from the federal government and $800,000 from the provincial government. Last year, the society received an additional $530,000 from the federal government as a result of increased demand from refugee claimants.

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

July has been the society’s busiest month this year, with 122 cases so far, Benton said. There were 115 in May.

kderosa@timescolonist.com

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