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B.C.'s legal labyrinth: legal aid advocates call for system to be overhauled

Legal System 4
The legal system can feel overwhelming for people who don’t have access to adequate legal representation.

At 54, Ellen Bayens has filled many roles: teacher, medical lab tech, wife and, currently, stay-at-home mother of two. These days, one challenge consumes her life.

At the Victoria Law Courts, the Saanich woman is fighting for spousal support from her husband – a struggle she never anticipated. She fears she’ll soon be facing it on her own, as cuts to legal aid in British Columbia continue.

“My whole world has been altered by the process because the people who you think you can count on to help you – without the funding, they can’t,” she said.

Last fall, veteran lawyer Leonard Doust, leading the Public Commission on Legal Aid – an independent group representing six legal bodies, including the Law Society of B.C. and the Victoria Bar Association – travelled the province collecting submissions from those in need of legal aid.

In his report, “Foundation for Change,” released Tuesday March 8, Doust makes nine recommendations for how the system can be made more accessible, including re-establishing regional aid offices and making legal aid an essential service.

“It is an absolutely essential social service,” Doust said in an online address, posted to the commission’s webpage. “Without it, people can be, and indeed they are … deprived of the other essential services in our province, particularly social welfare. It’s like the four-legged chair missing one leg: it falls.”

For the most part, Legal Services Society of B.C. agrees with Doust’s findings. In a response to the report, the society’s spokesperson Brad Daisley calls legal aid in B.C. inadequate.

“LSS also endorses the recommendation that legal aid must be recognized as an essential public service and that significantly more funding is needed,” he writes.

Despite the general acceptance of the report, Daisley makes clear in the statement that the report was not conducted by the LSS and does not necessarily reflect an accurate image of the current state of legal aid in B.C.

Between April 1, 2009, and March 26, 2010, the society saw funding cuts to family law, including dispute resolution and category one criminal law -- offenses such as breach of probation or failure to appear. Immigration and refugee law services were also cut.

B.C. Attorney General Barry Penner recently questioned the financial practicality of Doust’s recommendations.

The report will be reviewed by the next attorney general, as selected by premier-designate Christy Clark next week.

Meanwhile, Bayens attends regular counselling sessions through a transition house to help manage her stress.

A victim of abuse, she is uneasy sharing the details of her complex legal situation but has chosen to be among those speaking up and pushing for change.

“Most women abandon the process because the process itself is so damaging, and I can certainly attest to that,” she said.

“It’s systemic discrimination against people who are unable to fund their own justice.”

Legal aid, but at what cost?

Leonard Doust’s call to action for increased legal aid services may be applauded by some, but not the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

Gregory Thomas, spokesperson for the federation, said citizens shouldn’t be on the hook for the $47 million in recommendations suggested by the Commission on Legal Aid.

“Taxpayers don’t trust defence lawyers to do the right thing with their legal aid money,” Thomas wrote in an email to the News.

“Look at the B.C. Rail trial – the two defendants pleaded guilty, but not before seven years of legal wrangling that earned their defence lawyers $6 million.”

Thomas also quoted the Pickton trial – where the serial murderer’s defence lawyers billed taxpayers $11.7 million.

“If defence lawyers ran legal aid, we would need to close every school and hospital in the country, because there would be no money left for anything else,” he said.