Perverse outcomes of the
By Shannon Daub
I — along with a whole lot of other British Columbians — have been
stewing away about the abrupt end to the BC Rail trial, and the
decision to let David Basi and Bob Virk completely off the hook for $6
million in legal fees. Politics of the matter aside, what really gets
me is the appalling contrast between this largess on the part of the
Special Prosecutor and the government’s denial of access to justice to
so many other British Columbians.
Take for example the single-mindedness with which the province pursues
welfare “overpayments.” As the BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre
(BCPIAC) has extensively documented, the Ministry of Housing and Social
Development has tried to take hundreds of welfare recipients to court
in recent years in an attempt to recover benefits paid in error or
through alleged fraud.
Setting aside the fact that most of
these cases don’t stand up to scrutiny, and the fact that our
government is spending money chasing after people whose incomes
range between about $600 and $1,300 per month, what’s ironic in
relation to the BC Rail trial is that these very welfare recipients are
not eligible for legal aid. That’s because the provincial government
eliminated poverty law legal aid during its slashing of civil legal aid
funding in 2002-04. (Poverty law legal aid used to be available to
low-income British Columbians for help with legal problems related to
housing, welfare benefits, debts, disability pensions, etc.)
So unlike the Basi-Virk duo, these welfare recipients have to make do
without the help of a publicly-funded lawyer, despite the fact that,
according to BC PIAC, many “have barriers to comprehending and
effectively responding to legal proceedings, including poverty,
disabilities, literacy, and language barriers.”
And it’s not just poverty law legal aid that’s been cut. Access to
family law legal aid has also been severely restricted, to the point of
systematically denying women who can’t afford a lawyer access to
justice. According to West Coast LEAF Executive Director Alison Brewin,
the results have been “devastating.” In an article published by
LEAF and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, she said:
"Without adequate legal representation, women are losing custody of
their children, giving up valid legal rights to support, and being
victimized through litigation harassment. They are spending endless
days navigating a complex legal system — researching and preparing
legal documents, appearing without a lawyer for highly charged divorce
and custody cases, and agreeing to settlements that are not in their
own or their children’s interests."
She wrote that article in 2004 — before the latest rounds of cuts.
Things have gotten so bad that six of the province’s most prominent
legal organizations (including the Law Foundation of BC, the Law
Society of BC and the Canadian Bar Association’s BC Branch) launched a
Public Commission on Legal Aid this past fall, in a bid to draw
attention to the inadequacies of BC’s legal aid system and develop
recommendations on how to fix it.
To put the $6 million cost of the Basi-Virk legal fees in context: it
is equivalent to nearly nine percent of the 2009/10 provincial
government grant to the Legal Services Society (which provides legal
aid in BC). Or about 3,666 funded legal aid cases.
There is something very wrong here. If only the thousands of people who
need but can’t access legal aid could just send their lawyers’ bills to
a special prosecutor.
Shannon Daub works with the Canadian Centre for Policy