B.C. justice system 'heading towards a crisis,' in need of reform: report

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A collective of B.C. lawyers and judges is calling on the provincial government to increase funding for legal aid in an effort to reduce the number of drawn-out court cases delaying the legal system. 

"We see a problem with core funding to the justice system," said branch president Michael Welsh, adding that the association hopes to make B.C.'s troubled justice system an election issue.

A report released by the Canadian Bar Association's B.C. branch says that many people in need of legal aid are bearing the brunt of an inefficient system.

According to the report, 40 per cent of British Columbians are unrepresented by a lawyer in family court cases, and 20 per cent are unrepresented in criminal cases. That lack of legal representation leads to longer court cases and greater use of taxpayer dollars.

"You're going to have those people who are wandering through the system lost — and that is costing the system."

Welsh says unrepresented cases end up taking up more courtroom hours, as well as the highly valued time of provincial judges.

Increasing legal aid

He says a lot of the problems could be solved if legal aid funding was increased.

Currently, lawyers who take on legal aid cases don't earn enough to cover their overhead costs, meaning the program is no longer economically feasible, said Welsh.

"The problem is that the legal aid system has been starved now for many years," he said. "There hasn't been any increase in the legal aid system since the early 2000s."

The Bar Association is advocating for an increase of legal aid lawyer funding to $135 per hour, up from $84. While the near 50 per cent increase seems like a large jump, he says it would actually save the province money in the long run by freeing up courtroom time.

The report also lobbies for extending the hours of courtrooms into the evening in order to get more cases through the door, as well as funding for more courtroom staff including sheriffs and clerks — a lack of which can also slow down the progress of certain cases.

Province responds

B.C.'s Minister of Justice Suzanne Anton says access to justice is a priority for both the ministry, and the province, but it doesn't always have to come in the form of legal representation

"Not everybody will have a lawyer all of the time, but most people should have good access to information as they go into a courtroom. And it's that access to justice which is such a priority to me and our government."

Anton says there are a plethora of free legal resources available for British Columbians outside the courtoom in addition to current legal aid funding. She also says the province is working diligently to keep courtrooms staffed.

With files from CBC's B.C. Almanac

To listen to the full interview, click on the audio labelled: B.C. Justice system 'heading towards a crisis,' in need of reform: report