Monday April 21, 2014





Lawyers turn up heat in legal aid funding protest

'We are looking at a further escalation in the new year if government continues to dodge the question'

Frustrated by government's apparent failure to respond, lawyers are stepping up their job action to press for more legal aid funding.

This time, the protest is bound to have greater consequences for the courts.

The protest began earlier this year as a withdrawal of duty-counsel services to protest years of legal aid cutbacks.

Starting Thursday, lawyers will no longer take legal aid referrals for out-of-custody clients charged with criminal harassment. They'll ratchet up the protest in the new year. Starting Jan. 15, they will refuse out-of-custody clients charged with sexual assault.

The only exceptions may be cases in which the charges are laid in conjunction with other indictable offences.

Unlike earlier job action, these withdrawals will continue indefinitely, said Graham Kay, a Kamloops lawyer and regional representative of the Trial Lawyers Association of B.C., which is leading the job action.

"Lawyers do not take this lightly," Kay said.

It's not that the government hasn't taken notice of the protest, he said. The Cowper Report, submitted to Minister of Justice and Attorney General Shirley Bond in August, made specific recommendations to streamline B.C.'s justice system, including appointment of five more judges immediately to handle a backlog of cases in the system.

In October, Bond released a white paper on justice reform and pledged to set up a new justice and public safety council to coordinate the effort.

"They established the Cowper commission, but government didn't act, either in appointing more judges or providing proper funding for legal aid," Kay said. The subsequent white paper made no mention of restoring legal aid funding, either.

A second part to the white paper is due in March 2013, two months before the provincial election. That means the job action is likely to continue at least until then.

"We are looking at a further escalation in the new year if government continues to dodge the question."

Last year, there were more than 1,000 criminal harassment cases that received funding through legal aid. Sexual assault cases outnumber criminal harassment cases, though Kay didn't have a figure for those.

The refusal of services is bound to have a snowball effect. People who cannot afford legal counsel or obtain legal aid will be forced to represent themselves in court, which can further bog down the pace of trials.


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