On November 3rd, we heard that the B.C. Legal Services Society, the body that administers legal aid in B.C., will be closing five regional offices and laying off up to 54 staff as a result of funding shortages. Attorney General Mike de Jong says that the closings and layoffs are the result of the economic downturn. The Legal Services Society is funded in part by a tax on lawyers’ trust accounts, which may have dried up to a large extent as a result of the recession and low interest rates.
But the NDP, the official opposition party, argues otherwise. Opposition party members claim that the Liberal government has cut the legal-aid budget from $96 million in 2001 and 2002 to $74 million today. And of course they question the reasoning in doing so when our province is obviously able to afford hosting the 2010 Winter Olympics and the billions of dollars that are required for that.
Regardless of whether the layoffs and closings come about as the result of the recession or government funding cuts, there is a bigger issue here which needs to be addressed by the governments of all provinces: access to justice for all Canadians. While de Jong has stated that the changes are an attempt to try and reduce administrative costs and try and channel as much resource as possible into front-line services, it’s hard to imagine how “front-line services” will end up looking without offices in which to provide these services?
If we live and work within a legal system that is based on the rule of law, where invariably lawyers are needed to help citizens navigate through their legal problems, is it not a necessary requirement that governments help their citizens access legal counsel? People who do not see the importance of having a robust legal aid system have likely never had their back against the wall facing a legal problem for which they may be sent to jail or lose custody of their children.
So what do you think? Is this just another example of government decreasing its responsibility for providing an essential social service? Or is it, as some argue, an example of the government moving towards privatizing an institution which should be kept public? Running penitentiaries may be potential profit generators which private companies are eager to get their hands on. Are we headed down that slippery slope? As one commenter on the CBC news article aptly put it, “shut the schools…make everyone stupid, shut the hospitals …everyone dies….shut the legal system down….violate everyone’s rights.”