As a lawyer, Jim Hanson has to pay sales tax on services he offers to clients. Hanson, who is also a councillor in DNV, says it is the only profession he knows that has a tax on services. He says that tax would be more palatable if it was going towards what it is intended for: legal aid.
Only a third of that service tax actually goes to legal aid, he says.
That is one among the many changes Hanson would like to see in the legal aid system in BC, and he is playing his part in ensuring there is change in what he says is a severely underfunded system. As part of a council resolution to UBCM, he wants the province to realize that legal aid is an essential public service for the vulnerable and marginalised. Its chronic underfunding has led to a serious inequality in the delivery of legal services in local communities, he says.
He is asking the UBCM to encourage the province to restore funding to Legal Aid, and find a better compensation for legal aid lawyers. “What is the point of having legal aid if we don’t fund it properly? The legal aid lawyers have received only one raise since 1992 and that too was only 10 per cent. The overall impact is that the legal system is teetering on the brink of collapse,” he says.
Crown counsel salaries, on the other hand, have gone up over 130 per cent in the same period, he says. Better compensation and more funding for legal aid will attract more competent and experienced lawyers.
“Legal aid has been chronically underfunded for over 25 years, making it very difficult for the marginalised, vulnerable and poor to get legal assistance from a lawyer,” he says.
Hanson says there have been several studies and reports in the past, including those commissioned by the province, that have noted the serious consequences for chronic underfunding of legal aid. In April this year, BC gave one-time grant of $7.9 million to bolster payments to legal aid lawyers. The announcement follows warning by legal aid lawyers association to withdraw or limit their services because of inadequate compensation.
Meanwhile, BC government has announced it is introducing a new, province-wide legal aid service which will be available to people who won’t normally qualify for legal aid. By reducing eligibility rules, government says legal aid lawyers will be able to help more people navigate the criminal justice system — people who would otherwise have to represent themselves in court.
Available throughout the province, this service will help eligible clients get legal advice on cases that are suitable for early resolution.