Vancouver Lawyer Speaks to Rally on Legal Aid Cuts

Monday, February 11, 2002

Speech presented by Vicki Trerise in Vancouver on February 11, 2002 at a rally to protest the announced cuts to legal aid

I am pleased to have the opportunity to express some of my thoughts about the announced cutbacks to legal aid. In a word, I am stunned. I thought taking away the bus passes from low income seniors was as low as you could get, but I have to say that this is beyond low. It is reckless, it is dangerous, it undermines not only the basic security of many thousands of individuals and families here in BC, but also undermines basic legal and democratic values which are fundamental to a modern society.

The numbers are incredible. Out of a total saving of $83 million that the Ministry of the Attorney General is expected to achieve, fully 40% is to come by eliminating legal services for the poor and disadvantaged. The Ministry will endure a 12.6% cut in staffing, legal aid services are being asked to shoulder a staff cut of 74%. It's like saying: Our family has to go on a budget. We'll cut back here and there, and then we'll just stop feeding old Uncle Willy. The Attorney General, in his wisdom, has decided that the best way to reduce expenditures is to remove access to legal services for the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society.

So the numbers are drastic, but the directions as to how the remaining funds are to be spent is in some ways more distressing. The Attorney General has told the Legal Services Society to virtually eliminate family law services except for child protection cases and domestic violence restraining orders, and to eliminate poverty law advocacy services.

To do nothing for battered women except get them a restraining order is a cruel and cynical act. It betrays such a level of ignorance about the realities of these women's experience, and such a fundamental lack of awareness of trends in legal development in the rest of the western world, that it suggests that the Attorney General is simply lacking in basic competence. If the legal system fails to provide any assistance to a woman who is at risk for serious violence, and perhaps death, from her partner, then the legal system itself becomes complicit in the intimidation and coercion to which that woman and her children will inevitably be subjected. This rolls back the clock thirty years. It requires one of the largest groups of victims of serious crime to sit unrepresented with the perpetrators of that crime. It is shocking for its stupidity and its lack of human decency.

To provide no legal services at all for low income families experiencing separation and divorce, except the pathetic gesture of assistance with restraining orders, flies in the face of the world we live in. Marriages do not last. A ten year relationship is now thought of by the courts as long-term, and yet the children of that marriage are less than ten years old. Those parents, at a time of great personal stress, are faced with sorting out a very complex legal and financial and emotional situation.

I am a mediator. I support the use of alternative dispute resolution approaches to resolve family law problems. But family mediation requires that people be informed of their legal rights and obligations. And many cases are not appropriate for mediation, and a significant core of cases will not settle.

We know that, for lower to middle income families, a separation often results in a single parent living in poverty with the children. We know that children wear the results for the rest of their lives if matters between their parents are not properly resolved when a family breaks up. The deconstructing of families is one of the strongest demographic and social realities of our times; it is a social change so profound that we have barely begun to come to terms with it. It is not a time to reduce the resources available to support people through this experience. And it is especially reckless and short-sighted to abandon the poorest, most disadvantaged families to figure this out for themselves, even perhaps outside of the law entirely. It is a shameful way to save money, and ultimately a costly way.

And what about poverty law? Apart from general law for poor people, it is primarily the law of administrative tribunals, all of those small bureaucracies which make decisions about government programs, or about relations between private parties where there is a public interest in their business, for example, landlord and tenant or employment issues.

These tribunals exist to decide about entitlements, or to resolve other types of problems, and all of them include an avenue for review of the initial decision. This concept, that review is a necessary part of any quasi-judicial decision-making process, is part of the cumulative wisdom of our society. It is the way that mistakes can be identified and corrected, and also it holds in check the possibility for corruption, for bias, for favouritism, for general abuse of authority. Sometimes individuals can exercise their right to obtain review of decisions by themselves, but often they cannot.

Do we now say here in B.C. that people who are poor or disabled or disadvantaged do not have the right to this most fundamental legal protection? That if a decision is made which denies them money for food, shelter, or the ability to provide for their children, or which turns them out of their housing, or which disentitles them to necessary medical services, that they cannot obtain legal assistance to have that decision properly reviewed? If we remove from the poor and the vulnerable their capacity to have an informed voice to represent them in decisions about the fundamentals of life, we roll back our justice system 150 years.

To eliminate the staff who provide poverty law services within the legal aid program is also to eliminate a primary resource for all of the advocacy groups around the province. The Legal Services Society is a central resource for the training of lay advocates and for the fruitful information exchange which enables community groups operating on shoe-string budgets to provide effective services in every corner of the province. This is a repository of expertise which must not be lost.

And I do not think it is coincidental that the government has directed the Legal Services Society to eliminate poverty law advocacy services right at this time, when they intend to introduce massive changes to the legislation governing welfare and disability benefits. What if there are provisions in these new laws which are discriminatory, or contrary to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms? What if the systems set up to implement these new laws operate in contravention of the principles of natural justice? What if everyone is unfamiliar with the new provisions and mistakes are made? What if staff are directed to err on the side of disentitlement to ensure that budget targets are met?

The only place where people will have a real opportunity to challenge the content or the application of these new programs will be through the legal system and the Attorney General has directed the elimination of the legal resources which are required to exercise that opportunity.

This is about access to justice, and about participation in Canadian society. It is about disenfranchising tens of thousands of low-income families and individuals, telling them they can have no means to effectively exercise their right to the equal benefit of the law. This sort of action directed towards the least advantaged members of our community is a threat to us all. It is an erosion of fundamental legal protections which have taken centuries to develop. Every member of the legal profession should be actively concerned, as should everyone who cares about the fundamental nature of Canadian society. The board of the Legal Services Society has displayed great integrity and leadership in refusing to accept this direction from the Attorney General. Let's hope they will prevail.

But if the government persists, if it will take a constitutional challenge to bring this to a halt, then let's get on with it and let's get an interim injunction in place immediately. There is no doubt that this dismantling of poverty law advocacy services and the elimination of access to counsel for family law issues will cause irreparable damage if they are implemented.

Vicki Trerise is in private practice as a lawyer/mediator, and is the author of the Report published by the Law Society in 2000 entitled Where the Axe Falls: The real cost of government cutbacks to legal aid. She is a member of the Access to Justice Committee of the Law Society. You can contact her at [email protected]