Legal aid lawyers' dispute with province escalates with job action set for April 1

By James Peters
March 14, 2019 - 4:27pm Updated: March 15, 2019 - 9:27am

KAMLOOPS — Legal aid lawyers have refocused their efforts to extract more funding from the B.C. government.

More than 600 members of the Association of Legal Aid Lawyers (ALL) voted 97 per cent Wednesday in favour of beginning job action on April 1.

Graham Kay of Kamloops is among those who formed the association last fall, with the mission of focusing lobbying efforts for more funding.

"Our main focus is to increase funding for legal aid because it has been deteriorating significantly since 1992," said Kay.

Efforts to increase funding for legal aid most recently came to the fore in 2011, when legal aid lawyers withdrew duty counsel services.

But Kay notes that push was more loosely organized through the B.C. Trial Lawyers Association's Legal Aid Action Committee.

He says ALL is honing in on funding alone.

"We've never had that type of sophisticated body to be lobbying before; it's all been kind of haphazard. Although we had, in 2011, the Trial Lawyers Association taking the lead. But this time it is a brand new body that has at its focus the increased funding for legal aid in the province."

Negotiations between ALL and the province are ongoing, but if they don't produce a solution before April 1, Kay says legal aid lawyers will begin withdrawing their services.

The first phase will include withdrawal of criminal out-of-custody duty counsel, evening and weekend duty counsel and family duty counsel. As well, no new legal aid referrals will be accepted.

On April 15, Kay says legal aid lawyers will start to get off the record on all files they have in court, except those in which they are ethically bound to continue with, including impending trials.

Then if there is still no solution by May 1, the third phase will kick in, with legal aid lawyers withdrawing in-custody duty counsel services.

Kay says he hopes it doesn't go that far.

"Negotiations started before we had our vote. Negotiations are continuing this week and I hope that we'll be able to come to some agreement before April 1. If not, the job action is set in place."

ALAL says its funding has actually decreased 60 per cent since 1993, and B.C. is ranked 10th out of the 13 provinces and territories in funding for legal aid cases.

"It is not just about increased salaries or increased rates of pay for lawyers. This is really an access to justice issue," said Kay. "Legal aid has been underfunded for 25 years. We're really looking at having a long term discussion with the government about finding sustainable, stable funding for legal aid."

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