British Columbians have been dealing with a beleaguered legal aid system since 2002 when the provincial Liberals slashed its budget by $30 million, says the Canadian Bar Association.
Now the economic downturn has put the system in outright peril, prompting the association to launch a public awareness campaign aimed at convincing the government to reinstate lost dollars.
“In 2002, the province made the argument that they needed to do cuts so they could balance the budget, and afford to be a generous society,” said Sharon Matthews, the president of the B.C. branch of the association, while on the Kelowna leg of the awareness tour.
“We made the cuts, but where is the generous society part?
When the economy took a nosedive, families broke down and demands for court services rose in tandem, leaving thousands of women, children and mentally ill residents without assistance when at their most vulnerable.
“Depending on the year or the month, (B.C.) is either The Best Place on Earth or has a Families First government,” said Matthews, highlighting the province’s two most recent PR slogans.
“Today families are being marginalized, and that’s unacceptable.”
And it’s not just poor families being impacted when they’re left alone to deal with the courts for everything from rental tenancy to custody issues.
As court hours are lost to those awkwardly navigating the system, there are more adjournments and longer trials, which push back criminal cases to the point that they’re dismissed for not being heard in a timely manner.
It’s leading to a wholesale loss of faith in the system.
According to a recent study conducted by Angus Reid, said Matthews, three out of five British Columbians don’t think the justice system treats every person fairly.
Conversely, nine out of 10 think every person should have access to a lawyers, and 75 per cent think legal aid should be an essential service.
And, for those in need of a business case, Matthews said reinstatement of the $50 million in funding would actually result in a savings of tax dollars.
Police and social workers are employed for longer hours as court cases drag on, and court time could be cast aside if more people had legal representation. That alone could reduce costs.
A one day hearing — depending on whether it is in provincial or supreme court—ranges in cost from $1,859 to $2,606.
Last year, the Supreme Court heard 63,093 cases—civil, family and criminal—while the provincial court had 257,147 filings—traffic/bylaw, civil, family, youth and adult criminal.
Around 80 per cent of criminal cases are resolved in negotiations when a lawyer is present.
The association believes the reinvestment in legal aid would pay for itself, and international studies back that theory up.
In a study conducted out of Australia, every dollar spent on legal aid saved between $1.60 to $30 for the country in time and resource expenditures.
To learn more, go to www.weneedlegalaid.com.