Politics and legal aid in BC

So, there’s an upcoming election and, if you’re like me, you’ve heard a lot of promises.

But, I haven’t heard much about the funding of B.C.’s justice system, which makes me wonder, “What the heck?!”

Now, I have previously indicated in columns that the courts are HORRENDOUSLY under-funded. You can read that column here: Justice system in crisis.

But, in addition to court budgets, legal aid in B.C. is also under-funded.

You may not have heard much about this topic, but there have been several protests by lawyers about the poor funding of legal aid: BC trial lawyers take stand.

So, what’s the problem? Well, the problem boils down to this: justice in B.C. is unattainable for a lot of people in British Columbia (because of their financial means) and legal aid does not “fill those gaps”.

You may not know a lot about legal aid, so here’s some information…

First of all, “legal aid” is basically government funded legal advice and service.

So, how do you get that government-funded lawyer to work for you?

Well, there are some hurdles that you need to jump over. First, your particular legal issue must be covered by legal aid.

Here are the most common situations when legal aid will be provided:

  1. You are charged with a criminal offence that could send you to jail (if convicted);
  2. You have a serious family law problem, which generally involves some issues involving a child’s safety or care; and
  3. You are facing immigration proceedings that may result in you being removed from Canada.

The next hurdle to jump over is Legal Aid’s financial guidelines. Basically, your net household income must be below a particular amount. Here’s an example: if you live alone, your net income must be equal to or less than $1,480.00/month.

And, you can’t have a lot of assets either. An intake legal assistant at Legal Aid will look at the value of your assets (to determine if you should receive legal aid). They’ll consider things like your cash, RRSPs, home, and car. With some exceptions, assets are considered disposable (i.e. able to be sold).

You may be thinking, “It sounds like legal aid covers a lot of different legal matters.” If you think that, consider this…

Legal aid doesn’t help you if you want to create a Will or Power of Attorney. It doesn’t help you if someone physically hurts you and you want to sue them for your losses. It doesn’t help you if someone refuses to pay you for services/work that you agreed to provide to them. It doesn’t help you if you are charged with a “typical” criminal offence, as the most common criminal offences don’t result in “jail time”.

You get the point: legal aid doesn’t provide assistance to most legal situations.

Then, there are the financial hurdles… A LOT of people make more than $1,480.00 (or approx. $17,700.00 net per year), but cannot reasonably afford a lawyer (or any other unexpected expense for that matter).

For your information, I frequently meet with and provide advice to people who cannot afford a lawyer and who do not qualify for legal aid. And, it can be heart wrenching.

Many of these people have great cases and civil claims (but cannot afford a lawyer to prosecute their claim). And, many of these people who are charged with criminal offences have legitimate defences (but cannot afford a lawyer to argue that defence).

Now, I take on some of these claims on a pro bono basis; but, obviously, I can’t take them all.

So, what do we do? Well, we need to ensure that legal aid is adequately funded, so that JUSTICE is attainable for more people.

Here are some wise words, said by the Right Honourable Chief Justice of Canada Beverley McLachlin, P.C.: “Our brains are hardwired for justice. To be required to accept that you can’t have justice is to give up a part of yourself as a human being.”

Something to think about on election day…

**The information contained in this column should not be treated by readers as legal advice and should not be relied on without detailed legal counsel being sought.

Originally posted on Castanet.net on April 30, 2013: Politics and legal aid in BC.

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