New Westminster lawyer part of Rally in Ribbon & Robes protest against provincial legal aid cuts

Cuts to the legal aid system in B.C. were the focus of four rallies held simultaneously on Wednesday afternoon.

At 1 p.m. Wednesday, in Vancouver, Victoria, Kamloops and Penticton, lawyers united to decry the cuts to the system, which are forcing lawyers to withdraw duty counsel legal services in January.

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New Westminster lawyer Paul Janzen attended the Vancouver rally and said legal aid lawyers are frustrated with the system.

"Cuts that have taken place since 2002 have been devastating," said Janzen. "As front-line workers, we see the consequences. It's frustrating to work in a system where there's little you can do as a lawyer to help those in the greatest need."

At the start of January, lawyers who work as duty counsel begin an escalating series of service refusals. Duty counsel are lawyers who are called upon to represent people soon after an arrest, often people taken into custody overnight, who cannot afford a lawyer.

Duty counsel are scheduled to pull service across B.C. for the first week of January, the first two weeks of February, the first three weeks of March, and the entire month of April.

Janzen said he serves approximately four days a month as duty counsel and it's also not uncommon for him to be asked to help out on other matters.

"You'll find lawyers in court on another case and a judge will ask if you can help this person," said Janzen. "There's a lot of unpaid pro-bono work that lawyers put in to try and keep this system working."

Janzen, with 20 years of experience as a lawyer, said he was heartened to see approximately 100 people attend the Vancouver rally and prominent in that group were Crown prosecutors.

"You don't often find lawyers united in a cause," said Janzen, "but I think Crown lawyers are united in this cause ... because they know how difficult it is when one side is unrepresented or underrepresented ... They have to deal with cases where somebody is defending themselves because they can't afford their own lawyer."

The lawyers who gathered in front of the Vancouver courthouse were wearing their legal robes and blue ribbons. They are asking the provincial government to restore legal-aid funding, which has decreased by $50 million in the past 20 years.

At the same time, the provincial government is taking in approximately $100 million or more, through its provincial tax on legal fees.

Bentley Doyle, communications director with the Trial Lawyers Association of B.C., said there's a simple solution to the problem.

"If the government would direct the money that it collects on the tax it takes in," said Doyle, "That's $100 million annually on the tax right now. If they directed that to legal aid, we wouldn't be in this problem."

In 2010, a public commission on legal aid was conducted by renowned lawyer Len Doust. In his report, Doust said: "B.C. is seriously lagging behind other jurisdictions. ... We can no longer avoid the fact that we are failing the most disadvantaged members of our community."

According to a press release from the Attorney-General's office released Thursday, the provincial government has maintained core basic legal aid funding at $66.5 million this year and has done so since 2005.

In addition, in 2010, legal aid provided representation to nearly 28,000 low-income individuals to assist them with legal matters.

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