How legal aid works in B.C.

November 13, 2019

By Vancouver Sun |

B.C. has an excellent legal aid system. Given a local high profile murder case and the announcement by the provincial government of a new framework agreement and an increase in funding last year, it’s helpful to understand just how legal aid works in this province.

Unlike many states in U.S., B.C. does not have legal aid offices full of lawyers anxious to jump on cases. The myth around those types of offices is they are for lawyers who can’t quite make it in the real world. Many wrongly believe legal aid is synonymous with lawyers from the bottom of the barrel. Fortunately, that’s not the case in B.C. Legal Aid here means you can have any lawyer you want, assuming it’s a lawyer who wants to take the case.

B.C.’s legal aid system is based on rules and financial qualification set out by the Legal Services Society (lss.bc.ca). Generally, legal aid is for people who possibly face jail, a conditional sentence, could lose their job, or face an immigration proceeding and deportation. Legal aid is also available due to a physical condition, mental or physical disability, or if you are Aboriginal and the case affects your traditional livelihood. The other key qualifier in B.C. is income. This is all set out in the legislation, but the cutoff works out to be about $1,600 a month maximum for one person or, for example, $2,900 for a household of three people.

It’s a good system. Over 25,000 people a year qualify for some form of legal aid. Without a doubt, it’s a constant source of clients and income for lawyers in this province. Last year, over 1,000 private practice lawyers in B.C. did legal aid work.

These private practice lawyers are essentially contract lawyers — hired guns — who represent the clients. They are not Legal Services Society lawyers, who are also in the throes of funding issues. In Vancouver, and other locations, there are Legal Services Society offices. They are staffed by Legal Services Society lawyers and support staff. These are not the lawyers who represent clients in legal matters. The Legal Services Society staff lawyers ensure those who need legal aid have access to it and they support the lawyers who provide the actual legal services to clients.

Here in Victoria, we have the Law Centre office. It is not full of lawyers waiting to represent a client. It is full of very enthusiastic law students from UVic who are keen to help, under the supervision of lawyers and faculty from the UVic Faculty of Law. They handle a number of cases through that office, but there are limitations. Really, who wants to be represented by a student who heads back to class as you head off to jail? The able students at the Law Centre will handle some criminal matters, divorce and family law matters, human rights, civil, employment insurance, welfare, landlord issues and some CPP issues.

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