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In support of a comprehensive provincial legal aid plan

Summary

Consistent with its position that legal counsel should be available to everything, regardless of their ability to pay, the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association recommends the government of B.C. adopt a comprehensive legal aid plan. Specifically, the Association supports the proposals made by the B.C. Section of the Canadian Bar Association, which provide for:

  1. Examination of the whole scope of legal aid, enlarging it to cover every class of legal action.
  2. Organization and management of the plan by the Law Society.Setting up a government legal aid fund.
  3. Decentralized administration with regional committees set up to meet needs of various areas in B.C.
  4. Service to all members of the community, regardless of income, subject to certain specified conditions.Duty counsel to provide immediate advice for those about to appear on minor criminal charges.

In addition, the Association urges that priority consideration under any legal aid plan be given to setting up the following facilities in interior communities:

  • neighbourhood law offices
  • duty counsel
  • court workers.

To ensure its effectiveness, the legal aid plan should be widely publicized through existing agencies. Special studies are needed to determine the legal requirements of special groups, and courses relating to these legal needs should be made mandatory for both law and social work students.

In 1963, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association produced two reports on criminal and civil legal aid. We were gravely concerned about the large number of persons who, because they lacked adequate funds, were not able to obtain counsel in court cases. We stated our position at that time:

In criminal cases:

…so long as we have the adversary system, it is essential to the administration of justice that both sides be fully and thoroughly presented, and the administration of justice has long been accepted as a function and responsibility of the state. In our view, the assistance of counsel should be a right made effective to the accused by the state through the use of public funds.

In civil cases:

The administration of justice according to law is one of the hallmarks of a civilized society. Another is the protection of the weak against the strong, whether that strength be physical or economic. Both of these factors require that judicial determination of disputes should be readily available… [with limited exceptions, we therefore recommend that] legal aid should be available to any person resident in the province for any civil court proceedings commenced in this province, whether at first instance or on appeal, and whether the applicant be the intended plaintiff, defendant, or any other party.

Our concern was to provide the means whereby the rich and the poor would be truly equal before the law.

In 1969, the legal aid committee of the B.C. Section of the Canadian Bar Association produced a report on legal aid, which was adopted by the Bar Association at its meeting that year in Prince George. Our Association studied these latter proposals and found them to be essentially in agreement with those contained in our 1963 briefs. In view of this coincidence of aims and purposes, the Association notified both the B.C. Section of the Canadian Bar Association and the Attorney General for of our support for these proposals. The Association urged the Attorney General to implement the proposals in full during the 1970 legislative session.

In 1970, however, instead of adopting an adequate legal aid plan, the provincial government only allocated funds to establish an administrative centre for legal aid. We welcomed this as a step in the right direction, but it alone was hardly the kind of comprehensive legal aid programme needed in this province.

We therefore continue to urge the government of British Columbia to enact a comprehensive, universal legal aid plan at the earliest date possible. Specifically, we support the following recommendations of the B.C. section of the Canadian Bar Association:

  1. The whole scope of legal aid should be examined and should be enlarged to cover every class of legal action.
  2. The organization and management of the plan should be entrusted to the Law Society of B.C., which is best equipped to deal professionally with the entire problem free of political consideration.
  3. There should be a legal aid fund set up by the fovernment to ensure that lawyers are compensated for their services under the plan.
  4. The plan should be decentralized with regional committees set up to meet the needs of the various areas in B.C.. These committees should not be composed solely of lawyers, but also include other interested community workers.
  5. The plan should serve the community as a whole irrespective of income, subject to the following conditions:
    • that the client make a declaration of his or her assets to prove an inability to pay the full amount
    • that where possible, his or her case be evaluated by a regional committee as one qualifying for assistance under the plan
    • that the client bear partial cost where necessary to the extent deemed justified
  6. The plan should include a scheme for duty counsel to provide immediate advice for those about to appear on minor criminal charges.

Furthermore, the particular urgency that underlines the need for better legal aid services in smaller B.C. communities requires that any legal aid plan give priority to servicing these regions. Legal aid facilities available in smaller towns do not begin to approach the standard of services available in Vancouver or Victoria.

We therefore recommend that under any legal aid plan, priority be given to the following facilities for interior communities:

  1. neighbourhood law offices, where a group of lawyers would be constantly available for legal advice and assistance, and for handling legal aid court cases
  2. duty counsel (now available in Vancouver), so a lawyer would be available in court to provide immediate advice for those about to appear on minor criminal charges
  3. court workers (now available in Vancouver and a few other communities), so citizens who are not lawyers, but are knowledgeable in police and courtroom procedures and related matters, would give whatever assistance is required by persons involved in court actions.

A comprehensive legal aid plan must be understood and used if it is to be effective. Adequate publicity and the distribution of explanatory material on a wide scale are absolutely necessary. Every effort should be made to use Manpower centres, welfare agencies, community centres, schools and other agencies for this purpose.

In addition, special studies in target areas should be made to determine the legal requirements of special groups, such as the native community and citizens on welfare. For maximum effectiveness, integrated courses should be introduced relating to the legal needs of underprivileged sections of society–the courses should be mandatory for both law and social work students.

A government that adopts a legal aid plan such as the one outlined here, would be acting to make effective one of the most cherished, but rarely achieved principles of democratic government–that citizens are equal before the law.

We encourage the government of British Columbia to review the whole field of law and justice in B.C. and to legislate for a comprehensive legal aid plan at the earliest possible date.