Statement of the Law Union of British Columbia in Support of the Association of Legal Aid Lawyers Job Action
The Law Union of British Columbia proudly endorses the decision of the Association of Legal Aid Lawyers to go on strike with respect to legal aid files starting April 1st, until substantial action is taken to address the longstanding crisis of legal aid funding in our province.
The fight for legal aid is a fight for the rights of all British Columbians to have adequate access to quality legal counsel when their basic rights and freedoms are at stake. In particular, poor and working people mostly find themselves interacting with the legal system when they are at their most vulnerable — when they are accused of crimes; when their parenting rights are in jeopardy; when they are seeking government protection from abusive spouses, employers, or foreign governments; or when they are seeking redress for harms committed against them by others. If people whose fundamental rights and freedoms are under threat do not have access to the advice of knowledgeable, professional advocates, ethically bound to work solely in their clients’ interests, then our legal system fails to provide justice. This is an access to justice crisis.
It is also a crisis of inequality: while the wealthy, corporations and governments have well-funded legal teams at their disposal to protect their interests, poor and marginalized people – already disadvantaged within society – are further disadvantaged when they do not have access to adequate representation.
Marginalized and racialized communities – starting with Indigenous peoples – are too often left to feel abandoned by a legal system that claims to uphold their rights, that fails to affirm their dignity, and continues to trample upon collective identities. Although the outcome we hope for through this job action could never atone for historical wrongs perpetrated in the name of “the law,” it can help demonstrate that this bundle of collective values we term “justice” and “fairness” are not just platitudes, or protections for only the privileged to rely upon, but irrefutable mandates at the marrow of our society.
The right to make full answer and defence is one of the principles of fundamental justice protected under our Constitution. But the failure of one provincial government after another to uphold their obligations prevent this promise from being truly fulfilled. Legal aid lawyers do not just advocate on behalf of their clients – they cast a rare light upon inequities inherent in the law. Without those voices to make these arguments in courts, the law will continue to develop away from the lived experiences of those who need its strength the most. Without them, the inequities which continue to adversely impact the lives of thousands of British Columbians will be doomed to persist.
Funding adequate legal services for poor people, however, will never become a government priority in the absence of real pressure. This abdication of government responsibility is evident from almost thirty years during which the province has collected a 7% tax on legal services specifically designed to fund legal aid, but has refused to earmark that money for its intended purpose. It is evident from government-commissioned study after government-commission study concluding that the system’s budget needs to be substantially increased, answered by small and inconsistent increases and calls for additional studies. It is evident by the wholesale failure of the budget to allow for even inflation-based increases in the rates paid to legal aid lawyers, while the rates paid to prosecutors, judges, and administrators working in the same system have seen significant hikes over the same period. It is evident by the government’s failure to raise these rates even as fewer and fewer lawyers are able to sustain their practices and pay their bills by doing this essential work at these low rates.
Under these circumstances, legal aid lawyers are uniquely situated to apply the pressure necessary to force the government to act. They can — and do — apply that pressure by lobbying through their professional associations, by participating as individuals in the political process, and by bringing pro bono litigation on behalf of clients whose lack of access to justice resulted in violations of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. They also have the power to withhold their labour, and at this late stage in this ongoing crisis, that is what they must do.
The Law Union calls upon the working people of British Columbia to stand in solidarity with the Association of Legal Aid lawyers and its membership, many of whom have worked tirelessly for years, putting in thousands of additional unpaid hours to ensure that the services they provide are up to the standard required by their ethical commitments, as they remind the government that they are the workers who make this system possible, and that without their labour, there can be no pretense of justice in British Columbia.
In striving to rebuild our legal aid system such that all British Columbians have access to lawyers and legal services, the Law Union of BC urges the government to dramatically increase the legal aid budget so that sufficient funds may be allocated to re-establish and fully fund legal aid programs in criminal law, family law, poverty law, Indigenous law, immigration and refugee law, and civil law.
The Law Union stands with the legal aid lawyers, and affirms their right — and their responsibility — to fight back.
If you want to lend your support, please consider filling out our petition calling upon the BC government to adequately fund legal aid.