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Legal-aid funding increased by $2.1 million

Dec 31 2011

Annual legal-aid funding will rise by $2.1 million to assist families with emergency custody or access matters, the Ministry of the Attorney General announced Friday.

The additional funding — which brings legal aid funding in B.C. to $68.6 million — will also help parents with children in the custody of the Ministry of Children and Family Development who cannot afford legal services, the ministry said in a statement. Funding will be made available "through efficiencies" in the ministries administrative resources, it said.

B.C.'s Representative for Children and Youth welcomed the announcement, calling it a good start.

"This is good, as far as it goes," said Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond. "The problem with legal-aid funding has been around a long time. I'm pleased to see the dedication of some resources. It shows a sense of priority in the area."

Turpel-Lafond said she was not confident the increased funding would address the issues of access and delay in the court system, which causes enormous problems. She has also been concerned for some time that the emphasis on criminal law puts family cases at the bottom of the list.

"I would like to see the entire system, civil and criminal, put more priorities on children and families," said Turpel-Lafond. "This is signalling a shift in that direction, but we need to see more details and plans on how the justice system will be improved and supported."

Victoria criminal lawyer Paul Pearson, a member of the legal aid action committee of Trial Lawyers Association of B.C., said the funding falls woefully short of what is needed. "We are glad to see the government has finally taken notice of the shocking underfunding of legal aid in B.C., but the increase is less than a tenth of what is necessary to merely bring legal-aid funding back to where it was before this government slashed it in 2002," he said.

B.C. defence lawyers have been protesting cuts to legal aid at rallies throughout the province. They are planning a campaign of withdrawing adult criminal duty counsel services in January.

Lawyers will continue to withdraw their services, said Pearson, noting that the government collects close to $100 million each year in taxes on legal fees which was supposed to pay for legal aid. "This announcement is like saying, 'We'll give back one-tenth of the money we have misappropriated,' " said Pearson.

Leonard Krog, the Opposition critic for the attorney general, said the increase in legal aid funding is a cynical case of Christmas regifting.

"This does not really appear to be new money. This simply means that some other aspect of the attorney general's ministry is going to suffer," said Krog. "And the fact they have left it for announcement on basically the last working day of the year tells me they don't really wish to explain where this money is coming from."

ldickson@timescolonist.com

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