VANCOUVER - Lawyers who handle legal aid cases in British Columbia have put their protest on hold in an effort to get talks started with the new provincial justice minister after an 18-month deadlock.
"We're having a period of what I would call reconciliation," said longtime defence lawyer Phil Rankin.
British Columbia's trial lawyers began job action in January 2012, withdrawing their services as duty council, who normally represent people for first-time appearances or those without a lawyer.
The job action put more pressure on a provincial court system that has been mired in delays, resulting in several cases — from drunk driving to cocaine trafficking — being thrown out of court.
Rankin said the lawyers are no longer withdrawing their services.
"At this point, the executive is attempting to meet with the new attorney general to see if there is a more positive approach we can take and if that doesn't go anywhere, then I guess we will have to resort to what we've been doing for the last couple years," he said.
"There's always hope when you have a new (minister) in there that maybe they don't have a completely closed mind. The former attorney general ... it was pointless to talk to her, there was no point in talking to her at all. She was completely closed-minded."
Legal aid lawyers earn between $84 and $93 an hour, depending on experience.
Justice Minister Suzanne Anton issued a statement Friday saying she's looking forward to the meeting.
"I am sure that the association (has) strong views on a number of aspects of the justice reform agenda, including legal aid, and I would welcome the opportunity to hear from them directly," she said.
"Taxpayers are investing a total of $72.5 million in the Legal Services Society in 2013-14. We have committed to provide an additional $2 million next year to permit the society to test an expanded criminal duty counsel model in a pilot location as well as to expand family legal aid services in the province. We’ll continue to look at how we can achieve better outcomes to ensure our justice system best serves the public.”
However, Rankin bridled against what he called a common misconception.
In fact, he said the money spent on legal aid is not taxpayers' money. The trial lawyers argue the government has been collecting millions of dollars through a tax on lawyers' fees that was meant to fund legal aid, but instead, the money has gone into general revenue.
"The government is stealing ... approximately $100 million per year of tax money from private clients," Rankin said, arguing it would cost the government and taxpayers far less to properly fund the system than it does to make up for all the problems caused by the underfunding.
Rankin and other defence lawyers say the underfunding has meant dramatically slower court processes and has forced judges to spend huge amounts of time sorting through cases where defendants are representing themselves because they can't afford to hire a lawyer.
"If you have no lawyers there, the courts have to remedy all the defects in the case. Did they bring their bills, did they bring their income tax, did they bring their paperwork, do they have their witnesses ready, do they know how to subpoena the witnesses," he said.
"If you have unrepresented people, all these issues are still there, but they don't necessarily know they're there and they don't necessarily know what to do with them so the judge ends up playing the unfortunate [role] of the judge of the case and also the advisor of the represented litigants."
Backlogs in the province's courts prompted the government to announce a reform strategy last year aimed at making the courts more efficient, transparent and faster.
But the strategy did not include commitments for new funding or for additional judges.
The plan was a response to a report authored by lawyer Geoffrey Cowper, who was appointed due to concerns over persistent delays that have meant judges have thrown out hundreds of cases because they've taken too long to come to trial.
Cowper concluded court backlogs were the work of a legal culture that encourages delays and resists change, and he dismissed the suggestion that simply spending more money would fix the problem.
In 2011, the trial lawyers released a comprehensive report by longtime Vancouver lawyer Len Doust who concluded legal aid should be recognized as an essential public service for low-income people or those whose liberty is a stake.
Among Doust's nine recommendations for change in B.C.'s legal aid system was a call for long-term and stable funding from the provincial and federal governments.
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