Vernon lawyer reports for duty counsel work despite legal-aid protest

At least one Interior lawyer isn't on side with an ongoing protest against legal-aid funding.

Vernon lawyer Bill Firman was in the Kamloops courthouse Wednesday acting as duty counsel, a slot that would normally be filled by local criminal law lawyers.

Kamloops lawyers have withdrawn their services for the next two weeks as part of an escalating job action protesting what they say is inadequate legal-aid funding in B.C. The lawyers plan to withdraw criminal duty counsel services for three weeks in March as well, and for all of April.

Not Firman, who said he was lobbied by lawyers to decline the Legal Services Society work. He refused to do so, saying the job action is targeting the wrong people. He will be on duty at the courthouse the rest of this week and next Monday and Tuesday as well.

"It's not government that's being affected (by the strike). It's the people in custody. And I just won't buy into a program like that," he said. "It offends me to leave people in custody. They have a tough enough row to hoe."

He added he would have more sympathy for a job action that would see lawyers give up on legal-aid trial work, cases for which lawyers are better paid and clients are often not in custody.

"I have no sympathy for (lawyers) who continue to do legal-aid work, but just don't do duty counsel. If they are taking legal-aid referrals but not people in custody, then (cherry picking) is a good word."

Firman said he believes duty counsel work is well paid.

"I am well paid. I think it's inappropriate that (other lawyers) will leave people in custody to make a point," he said.

Firman said he's not concerned about what other lawyers think, noting he is not part of associations or unions. In his 40 years practising law in B.C., he's seen other protests against legal aid and also refused to participate in them.

"I wish them well," he said, adding his mind won't be changed by pressure from Kamloops lawyers. "It will work itself out."

Michelle Stanford, one of the lawyers organizing the Kamloops protest, said she is dismayed to see lawyers working against their effort.

"Part of the message we are trying to send the government is how unified we are. We don't expect all lawyers will be on side but we don't expect them to work against us."

The protest is designed to show the value of such services as duty counsel to the efficient running of the court system, she said

"We hope to highlight the importance of providing legal services to people in need, like people in custody, and people out of custody who need legal assistance," she said.

"The government does not appreciate the actual need for legal services in the courthouse. These two weeks (of withdrawal) will demonstrate the impact these services have."

Mark Benton, the executive director of the Legal Services Society, said he was aware the Kamloops duty-counsel shifts have at least been partly covered by an out-of-town lawyer.

The LSS is not trying to pit lawyers against lawyers, he added, but the society has a duty to provide legal services and will do so as best it can.

"Our obligation is to make an effort to ensure services are available to people in B.C.," he said. "The fact that people have chosen, for political purposes, to withdraw their services does not relieve us of our obligation."

He said legal aid has clearly suffers from a shortfall of funds but whether this protest will succeed in convincing government more money is needed is uncertain.

Benton said there is pressure on government to provide more funds in many areas, including education and healthcare. He suspects solutions will not come as quickly as protesting lawyers will like.

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