BCGEU seeks solution for legal aid funding crisis

Union says thousands will be hurt by service cuts.

B.C. cuts will hurt legal aid servicesVancouver (16 Jan. 2009) - The B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union (BCGEU/NUPGE) is demanding action by the Gordon Campbell government to address deep cuts to legal aid services.

The changes were announced by the agency responsible for programs to ensure that low income people are served by the justice system.

BCGEU president Darryl Walker says that the government's Legal Services Society (LSS) is planning $12.7 million in service and staff cuts in 2009-10.

"Tens of thousands of British Columbians will be hurt by these cuts if Victoria doesn't act to solve the funding crisis," warns Walker.

Some 38 staff positions (16% overall) — including about 20 BCGEU members — are to be cut by April 30. Legal aid services for less serious criminal charges are to be eliminated and payments to outside lawyers performing legal aid will also be cut.

Walker says LSS managers blame two factors for the cuts: a big increase in demand for services and an expectation that no new funding will be provided in the next provincial budget.

He is pressing the province for funds to protect existing services and to ensure that the growing need for legal aid is met.

As the economic downturn worsens, more British Columbians will need legal aid services to cope with pressures arising from unemployment, housing foreclosures and declining economic fortunes, he predicts.

"It's extremely unusual for a government agency to announce deep service cuts for the next fiscal year before the government has actually brought in the budget," Walker says. "We're worried that this could be a sign of things to come when the Liberals unveil their budget Feb. 17."

He notes that the Campbell government cut legal aid services by 40% in its first term of office and that it had only just begun to restore some of the funding in the past few years.