Robes and Ribbons: “Occupy” Responsibility

On Wednesday, November 30, hundreds of lawyers and law students alike will be gathering outside of courthouses across British Columbia. No, this will not just be another day at the office in front of judge and jury. This time, a group of people that legal researcher Bryan Horrigan once coined as “amoral guns for hire” will be exercising their right to remain moral. On November 30, these people will be promoting change to the province’s underfunded and neglected legal aid regime.

This is not a post to say that any lawyer who does not contribute to legal aid is a “bad” lawyer. Neither is it a post to say that all legal advice for all persons should be free of charge. Rather, this is a piece designed to acknowledge the realities of the province and country we live in. It is a piece that wants to tell of the responsibility that every lawyer and law student has to leave their trusted profession in a state better than when they arrived.

Here is the most important evidence. In 2002, the provincial legal aid budget was cut by 40% and has not reached pre-2002 levels since. This is notwithstanding the fact that British Columbia remains the only province to tax legal services with the direct goal of funding legal aid. The tax level remains steady, while the budget has dropped by $22 million. As a contrast, the government spent roughly the same amount of money in constructing two sets of large Olympic rings, and promoting the Vancouver Olympics in Torino and Beijing after Vancouver had already won the bid. According to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, since 2011, British Columbia has seen a 60% drop in the approval of family law legal aid cases and a 100% drop in the approval of poverty law legal aid cases. (British Columbia no longer funds legal aid for poverty law in any capacity). To put it bluntly, this is creating a two-tiered legal system in British Columbia: one for those that can afford a lawyer and one that cannot, with the latter mostly unable to properly access a lawyer at all.

It is easy to forget these realities as a law student or as someone privileged enough to practice law. The stress, the workload, the commitment to a work-life balance; we have chosen a profession that can be, at times, all-consuming. The gravity of forgetting how powerful the law can be in a person’s life, though, cannot be overstated. The most important thing about law is that it is designed to protect everyone. The second most important thing about law is that not everyone can fully understand it. Day after day in law school, we learn more about how inaccessible, confusing, and intimidating the law can be to the general public. When combined with the assertion from defence lawyer David Hopkins that further cuts in the legal aid budget will mean more people are going to be expected to defend themselves in court, the ramifications are clear. The legal system designed to protect everyone will be leaving those most in need out to pasture.

I will stand with these hundreds of lawyers and law students in Victoria on Wednesday because it is now my responsibility. I have been a law student for not even four months now, and while I do not know near enough to be able to put this responsibility into action, I can promise that I will. Everyone can do their part. From the firm partner to the legal aid staffer to the local solicitor to the fresh new law student and everyone in between, it starts with a recognition of three things. We must recognize that we have been trusted to act on the behalf of others. We must recognize that there are a multitude of ways to contribute, even if that does not include legal aid representation. Most notably, we must all remember that we are members of the general public above all else. We are not removed from our public responsibilities when we begin our careers in law. To the contrary, they are raised to an entirely new level.

As an old Chinese proverb claims, “After the game, the king and the pawn go into the same box.” Lawyers are both privileged in the role they play in society and no more privileged than someone who does not. The British Columbia Branch of the Canadian Bar Association has decided that these problems can no longer be neglected. For the sake of equality, one can only hope that sentiment catches like wildfire.

Supplementary Note: At the end of the day, one is left wondering: if 25 lawyers camped out for a month to advocate for fairer access to the legal system, would they be treated the same as 25 non-lawyers who camped out for a month to advocate for fairer access to financial stability?

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