Legal aid lawyers in Okanagan and across B.C. prepare to take job action - InfoNews

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Legal aid lawyers in Okanagan and across B.C. prepare to take job action

March 22, 2019 - 3:30 PM

PENTICTON - It won’t be an April Fool’s prank when B.C. legal aid lawyers walk off the job on April 1.

Penticton lawyer Nelson Selamaj says this is the first time lawyers have combined forces in the province to present their case for increases in hourly fees for criminal and family duty counsel work.

Last week, the Association of Legal Aid Lawyers announced their intention to withdraw their services beginning April 1 after 97 per cent of those members casting votes opted in favour of job action.

Selamaj says this isn’t about lawyers just wanting more money.

“It’s a dire situation. B.C. lawyers have had an increase in legal aid only once since 1991. A 10 per cent raise was given in 2006, raising the rate to $88 an hour, when Crown counsel has received a 111 per cent increase since 1994,” he says.

Selamaj says the April 1 action calls for lawyers to no longer accept legal aid contracts. If that fails, by April 15 the Association of Legal Aid Lawyers is calling for a withdrawal of in custody services, which is counsel provided to those who don’t have a lawyer during initial stages of a charge.

The loss of services will affect Penticton’s most vulnerable, the poor, the addicted and those with mental health issues, Selamaj says, and the courts will likely jam up as those with charges won’t be able to navigate their way through the legal system.

“Legal aid was supposed to be funded from a seven per cent tax added to legal fees, but from what I understand, that isn’t happening, only a small portion of that money is going to legal aid. We’re absorbing the cost, as many files end up being a loss to us in terms of the amount of time it takes to see them through the courts,” Selamaj says.

He says criminal duty counsel is paid on a tariff rate, based on a set rate for a specific charge, no matter how long it takes a lawyer to deal with it. Family duty counsel are paid on an hourly rate.

Selamaj says for the most part the Penticton bar is behind the action.

Penticton lawyer Anna Campbell says the job action is expected to take place province-wide.

Lawyers could also withdraw from their present services on April 1, but neither Campbell nor Selamaj see that as a possibility, for ethical reasons.

“The hope is something is going to happen fairly quickly, so the lawyers can continue to provide the services we’ve been providing,” Campbell says.

She says Penticton’s family duty counsel feels the service is important to the courts because they assist in presenting cases to the judge and facilitate proceedings initially, adding the first consequence of not providing services will be a large number of unrepresented people.

“That will put a burden on the court. Unfortunately, because they will have to sort it out. it will slow things down, more so for the court system than the litigants, but the litigant won’t be able to get the advice they would need to be able to know procedurally what to do next,” Campbell said.

Campbell called B.C.’s legal aid program the most underpaid in Canada.

“All the other provinces pay a lot more for legal aid. It’s an unfortunate situation we’re in, but we’re trying to make people realize we’re subsidizing. Most lawyers have to have an office and staff, and that costs money in this day and age,” she says.

“Getting paid $88 an hour really doesn’t go very far. It may seem like a lot of money, but it isn’t,” she says.

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