Every day low income people go to courts and tribunals across the country without any legal representation. They struggle to follow the complex rules of the court, to gather the evidence they need to establish their case, and to get their views across to a decision-maker. Many give up on our court system all together. BCPIAC recognizes that without access to legal representation for low income people, our legal system is manifestly unfair and cannot provide justice.
Legal aid in BC was drastically cut in 2002; this funding has not been restored. The financial eligibility thresholds have also not increased in BC for many years, making it so that even those who are living below the poverty line are not financially eligible for legal aid.
Without access to legal representation for low income people, our legal system is manifestly unfair and cannot provide justice.
BCPIAC’s goal is to continually push for a legal system that ensures that those who cannot afford legal representation are able to get it. In 2005 in the Canadian Bar Association case and in 2009 in the P.D. case, BC PIAC was involved with other groups in bringing a constitutional challenge to the current scope of legal aid coverage. In neither case were we able to get past a preliminary stage of the argument.
We plan to continue to fight to expand the circumstances to where there is a constitutional right to state funded counsel, including in family law cases involving custody and immigration cases involving potential deportation.
We also believe that the way that legal aid is administered should be fair and transparent. A key part of access to justice is to ensure that our legal aid systems are designed to be easily accessible to the most vulnerable people in our communities.
One area of legal aid which is chronically underfunded is legal aid for involuntary patients seeking a review of their detention under the Mental Health Act. When an individual is involuntarily detained, they lose a fundamental right to make their own decisions about their medical treatments, and may be physically confined in a hospital and forcibly medicated. In these circumstances where there is a loss of liberty and security of the person, s.7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees involuntary patients the right to a fair hearing—which for most involuntary patients necessitates legal representation. Where an involuntary patient requires a lawyer in order to have a fair hearing and cannot afford to hire a lawyer on their own, the government has an obligation under the Charter to provide that person with a state- funded lawyer – in other words, free legal representation.
BCPIAC is representing a BC woman Z.B. who has been involuntarily confined and medicated under the Mental Health Act and who has been denied legal aid representation at her Review Board Hearing.
Recent News in Access to Legal Aid
BC woman’s Charter challenge forces provincial government to provide legal representation to all people detained under the Mental Health Act