08/13/2012 04:58 EDT | Updated 10/13/2012 05:12 EDT

Justice system staggering under weight of federal reforms: bar association

VANCOUVER - Federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson dodged a call Monday from the Canadian Bar Association demanding a review of federal legal-aid funding to ensure money for defence is keeping up with the pace of federal justice reforms.

Members of the association's national council maintain federal tough-on-crime legislation will mean more trials and more jail time for more accused in an already strained justice system. The council passed a resolution over the weekend urging Ottawa for the review.

But Nicholson said his government has increased funding for legal aid.

"I know that over the years that I've been justice minister we've boosted the annual amount from $81 (million) to $111 million per year. There's a total commitment of $560 million to the legal-aid system," Nicholson told hundreds of lawyers attending the association's annual conference in Vancouver.

"We've maintained our funding levels even in this time of restraint."

And he defended his government's justice reforms, saying the changes they've made help the victims of crime while targeting perpetrators.

"Ours has been a balanced approach with respect to these measures," Nicholson said in response to questions from association members.

Dan MacRury, chairman of the national council's criminal justice section, said the Conservative reforms are increasing demand on a system that was already taxed.

"It's clear that the new laws are going to put an increased demand on all the players in the criminal justice system," MacRury said in an interview.

"There really does need to be a national review of the federal commitment to funding to ensure that it's adequate to maintain fair trial rights for the accused."

The funding that has gone into justice has gone to Crown prosecutions to equip police forces and to build more jails, MacRury said.

The Harper government has estimated that 18 of the measures included in its sweeping justice reforms would cost about $631 million in total.

A report by the Parliamentary Budget Officer earlier this year found that the changes in conditional sentencing provisions alone contained in Bill C-10, which eliminates conditional sentencing and house arrest for serious and violent crimes, would cost the federal government an additional $8 million for additional parole reviews and criminal prosecutions.

It will cost the provincial and territorial governments an additional $137 million for prosecutions, court cases, incarceration and parole reviews, said the report.

Documents released in response to a Freedom of Information request to the B.C. government show that just two of the reforms would cost that province alone $31 million to house an additional 470 inmates. Those reforms are the elimination of the two-for-one credit given to offenders for the time they served in pre-sentence custody and the elimination of conditional sentencing or house arrest for serious and violent crimes.

"The vast majority of the costs related to the federal bill will be in the area of Corrections," says an internal email about the audit of costs to the province. "The reality is, there will be increased costs. But it is an initiative we support."

Earlier this year, trial lawyers in B.C. took unprecedented job action to protest delays that have resulted in cases being dismissed. The Legal Aid Action Committee of the B.C. Trial Lawyers Association blames, in part, two decades of cuts to the legal aid system.

A comprehensive report on the legal aid situation in B.C. by lawyer Len Doust last year said legal aid should be recognized as an essential public service for low-income people or those whose liberty is a stake.

Among nine recommendations for change, Doust called for long-term and stable funding for the system from the provincial and federal governments.

The bar association has been critical of the federal reforms, saying they won't enhance safety but will incarcerate vulnerable people.

"We don't want a system that locks people up and throws away the key without fair representation...," MacRury told Nicholson before urging the review.

The system has been strained for a long time, he said after receiving a "non-response" from the minister.

"You only have to go to courts in this country to realize the strains that are on the system right now and it's important that it be adequately funded so that the system works," said MacRury, who is the chief Crown attorney for the Nova Scotia Public Prosecution Office.