Editor, The Times:
March 8, International Women’s Day, was marked by the release of a report by the Public Commission on Legal Aid in British Columbia. Len Daoust, one of the commissioners said that the whole system was essentially “broken.” The report states “The needs are greatest and have the most serious consequences in family law, in child protection, and in poverty law matters where individuals have unresolved legal problems that affect their ability to meet their basic needs for housing and subsistence.”
Is it a surprise that the results of this report should be released on International Women’s Day? Family law, custody issues and access to government services are largely women’s issues and it is women and children who are, most often, severely affected by this reduction in legal aid services.
In a CBC news item, Barry Penner, B.C.’s Solicitor General, defended his government’s record saying that it was committed to legal aid and that funding has remained stable even as other government programs have seen recent cuts.
Since Penner was first elected to the B.C. Legislature in 1996, his credibility on the issue of legal aid services must be challenged. Between 2002 and 2005, Penner’s Liberals cut legal aid funding by 40 per cent; they closed 85 per cent of legal aid offices, reduced staff by 75 per cent and cut family law by 60 per cent. In January, 2009, the Legal Services Society announced more huge cuts to staff and, in April, 2009, Family Law services were largely eliminated. In April, 2010, five more offices of the Legal Aid Society were closed and an additional 58 cuts were made to staff. In the face of these facts, how can Penner deny what his government has done to legal aid ?
Human rights and equality before the law depend on the ability of citizens to secure legal services. Most citizens lack the expertise to represent their own cases and their rights depend on legal services. Nowhere is this truer than in the case of women and children who have been placed in a vulnerable position by circumstances beyond their control. Yet, in Penner’s B.C., rights depend solely on the money required to purchase legal services. But legal aid is not a frill that should be abandoned to the whims of government. Legal aid is fundamental to a society that sees itself as fair and equitable. The B.C. record on legal aid is one of shame.