Poverty Law Legal Aid Services

The Honourable David Eby, QC
Attorney General of British Columbia and
Minister responsible for Liquor, Gaming and ICBC
Rm 232, Parliament Buildings
501 Belleville St., Victoria, B.C. V8V 1X4

Dear Attorney General Eby:

Re:      Poverty Law Legal Aid Services

We understand that your government is considering funding for poverty law legal aid services, and write to provide some recommendations on how these services could be structured in the short and long terms. The BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre (BCPIAC) is a non-profit social justice law firm that advances the interests of groups that are generally unrepresented or underrepresented in issues of major public concern. One of BCPIAC’s mandate areas is to improve access to legal aid services.

In 2010, the Public Commission on Legal Aid, chaired by Leonard Doust, QC, was established in order to “engage with British Columbians about the future of legal aid in the province.”[1] We wholly endorse the recommendations contained in the Commission’s 2011 final report, entitled Foundation for Change: Report of the Public Commission on Legal Aid in British Columbia (the “Doust Report”).[2]

The Legal Services Society delivered poverty legal aid services via community law offices and Native community law offices around the province until 2002, when poverty legal aid was eliminated from LSS’s mandate and budget. There are virtually no government-funded poverty law services today. The Law Foundation of BC has provided direct funding for anti-poverty and social justice lawyers and advocates over the past years; however, despite their best efforts, a large gap in service remains.

Poverty legal aid broadly covers issues that threaten a person’s ability to meet basic needs (such as shelter, food, and other necessities of life), or that threaten a person’s ability to earn a livelihood. More specifically, these issues may include:

  • Income security matters, such as:
    1. access to government benefits (e.g., provincial income assistance, Canada Pension Plan, Employment Insurance, Worksafe BC, Old Age Security and the Guaranteed Income Supplement, criminal injury compensation).
  • Employment issues, such as:
    1. employment standards;
    2. wrongful dismissal; and
    3. occupational health and safety.
  • Housing issues, such as:
    1. residential tenancies and violations of tenants’ legal rights;
    2. access to subsidized housing;
    3. foreclosures;
    4. housing on reserve land; and
    5. co-operative housing.
  • Debt issues, such as:
    1. unfair lending practices;
    2. bankruptcy; and
    3. debtor harassment.
  • Consumer issues, such as unconscionable transactions.

As observed in the Doust Report, the most vulnerable members of our society need poverty law legal aid:

Clients that typically have poverty law problems may be the most vulnerable in our society as they often have very low levels of education and comprehension, mental health and addiction issues, and have experienced significant trauma. People living in poverty are often dependent on government benefit programs and administrative decision makers, which often have systemic unfairness and accessibility problems. In this context, many people with low incomes are unable to effectively assert their rights without legal advice and representation. Legislation governing poverty law issues is complex and expertise is required. Furthermore, common law rules not apparent in the legislation can impact on process and decision-making, a concept that is generally mystifying to individuals without legal training.[3]

Further, providing poverty legal aid services is an integral step toward meeting your government’s commitment to reducing poverty in BC. Where unrepresented litigants cannot effectively make their case, they may be denied access to legal rights and protections to which they are otherwise entitled. As observed by the Doust Report, “access to these legal entitlements and protections can mean the difference between having a safe place to live or living on the streets, between having food, or going hungry. Inadequate legal aid jeopardizes the survival of our most vulnerable citizens, including people with mental or physical disabilities, the elderly, and single mothers with young children.”[4]

We urge the government to work toward fully implementing the recommendations of the Doust Report, including a comprehensive system of legal aid clinics and regional service centres, as soon as possible.

We recognize, however, that it would be difficult to get a full poverty law legal aid system up and running right away. In order to provide some services on a more immediate basis, we recommend that the provincial government initially fund lawyers and paralegals to provide a full range of poverty law legal aid services through existing poverty law advocacy programs that are currently funded by the Law Foundation of BC. We recommend that the government fund at least one paralegal or legal assistant to work with each poverty law legal aid lawyer. In addition to handling administrative matters, a paralegal could also provide certain legal services, allowing the lawyer to serve more clients more efficiently.

This model has a number of benefits, including:

  • allowing the government to leverage and enhance existing poverty law legal services;
  • providing access to legal advice and representation through trusted community service organizations throughout the province;
  • providing legal advice and representation on more complex and/or systemic poverty law matters, as recommended by the Doust Report;
  • ensuring that legal aid services have a local context and are community-based, as recommended by the Doust Report;
  • developing specialized services in First Nations communities, as recommended by the Doust Report; and
  • delivering poverty law legal aid services in a cost-efficient manner.

We note that our proposal also aligns with the August 2017 Justice Reform for British Columbia Report, issued by the Community Legal Assistance Society, West Coast LEAF, Pivot Legal Society, and the BC Civil Liberties Association, which recommended a mixed model of legal aid service delivery, including “funding for in-house counsel located in front line service delivery organizations.” [5]

In order to determine which agencies should house the poverty law lawyers and paralegals, we suggest that the Attorney General consult with the Law Foundation, community service agencies currently funded by the Law Foundation to deliver poverty law advocacy services, and non-profit law firms that currently provide some systemic poverty law services.

We would welcome the opportunity to discuss this issue further.

Sincerely, 

BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre

Sarah Khan and Kate Feeney
Staff Lawyers

 

[1] http://www.publiccommission.org/About/Main/

[2] http://www.publiccommission.org/media/PDF/pcla_report_03_08_11.pdf

[3] Doust Report, page 29.

[4] Doust Report, page 16.

[5] http://www.westcoastleaf.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Justice-Reform-For-BC-1.pdf