VANCOUVER, Sept. 20, 2013 /CNW/ - A decade of funding cuts, increased demand and policy restrictions has created a six week "justice blackout" for British Columbia's poorest citizens in the coming year, the B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union said today, citing a recent brief sent to legal aid lawyers from the Legal Services Society (LSS).
The September 4 brief states that, "because some very busy courts are about to set hearing dates for that time period, we strongly recommend that you avoid booking hearing dates for your criminal and child protection cases or doing any hourly paid legal aid work from February 17 through March 31, 2014… As a general rule, we would not pay for the majority of criminal or child protection services provided by counsel during this period."
"It is unthinkable that a province as rich as B.C. won't provide mandated legal services for it's poorest people," says BCGEU president Darryl Walker. "The B.C. government cut tens of millions of dollars from legal aid services over the past decade, despite a growing population."
The legal aid system now receives $20 million less per year now than in 2001, despite a 19 per cent (742,000) increase in population during that time. The Legal Services Society estimates a $2.5 million shortfall for criminal case funding this year, and a $500,000 shortfall for child protection cases.
New federal laws, including the Safe Streets and Communities Act have caused increased demand for legal aid services. In 2009 the BC government changed the rules, preventing public agencies from using accumulated surpluses to cover operating deficits - leaving service cuts as the only way to achieve balanced budgets.
"B.C.'s legal aid system is seriously malnourished," says BCGEU's Education, Scientific, Technical and Administrative component chair Richard Schaeffer. "About the only legal services provided now is for serious criminal charges and child protection cases where the safety of children is threatened."
"The minister says that timely and accessible justice is a priority for the government," says president Walker. "But access has been shrinking for years, and we now have a total blackout of services. It's time for the government to prove their commitment to equal justice."
SOURCE: B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union
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