Justice funding cuts over the last dozen years have placed the B.C. legal system in “crisis,” according to the B.C. branch of the Canadian Bar Association.
The organization is calling on candidates and voters to make that a top issue in the next provincial election. It also wants lawmakers to heed recommendations for reform provided in the group’s new report, An Agenda for Justice.
“People want practical laws to govern their affairs and fast, effective resolution of legal conflicts that interfere with their lives and businesses,” said association president Kerry Simmons on Tuesday.
“Today, the justice system in British Columbia is not meeting these objectives.”
In any three-year period, a B.C. resident has a 45 per cent chance of coming into contact with the justice system. Yet since 2000, the province has cut $113 million from justice, states the report.
Legal-aid funding is so limited, states the report, that in provincial cases 90 to 95 per cent of family court participants are unrepresented by a lawyer, 40 per cent are unrepresented in criminal cases and 90 per cent in civil court cases.
“The impact is that, through no fault of their own, people who are unrepresented take up more court time and more taxpayer-funded resources to go through the system,” said Simmons.
That leads to delays in child custody decisions that can amount to half or more of a child’s life. Criminal charges are dropped due to delay in the courts. And businesses may wait 18 months or more to resolve their disputes through the court system.
The closure or failure of mental health services, addictions and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder facilities and programs have added further pressures to the justice system, states the report.
The B.C. Canadian Bar Association's reforms fall under four areas: family stability, community security, business certainty and public accountability.
They address issues in the short term with little to no cost. This is in contrast to the long-term justice reform recommendations provided in an August 2012 report commissioned by the province and written by lawyer Geoffrey Cowper.
Kamloops-North Thompson MLA Terry Lake said the government is “totally committed to justice reform.”
He said Justice Minister Shirley Bond has already implemented some of the Cowper recommendations.
The province appointed nine new judges in December. The Family Law Act, which comes into effect next month, helps bring family matters outside the courtroom through agreements, mediation and arbitration. And roadside screening for impaired drivers now delivers administrative penalties.
“So I think we’re taking some positive steps,” said Lake. “We agree. This is a problem all over the country. It’s not just in B.C. The access to justice, the court time, the wait time, this is an issue everywhere so we are very active in dealing with it.”
But Kamloops-North Thompson NDP candidate Kathy Kendall, a family lawyer, doesn’t buy it. She said she sees serious crimes not dealt with and domestic violence supports being undermined.
“It shows that the Liberal government certainly doesn’t put a priority on the justice system and access to justice,” said Kendall. “Legal aid’s going underfunded and the government is spending $15 million on ads that some may describe as partisan.”
Kendall said the issue is near to her heart, however she’s unsure whether her party intends to make justice reform top of their platform as the B.C. branch of the Canadian Bar Association desires.
“I think the NDP brings an awareness to the issue and also a desire to consult with stakeholders, which is something I don’t think is very apparent with the Liberal government,” she said.
Kamloops-South Thompson candidates Liberal Todd Stone and NDP Tom Friedman could not be reached.