Prince George courthouse can expect a surge of criminal case adjournments starting next week as an ongoing controversy over legal aid funding has flared up again.
The Legal Services Society (LSS), which administers legal aid, has warned funding for such cases will have dried up for the last six weeks of its fiscal year and is asking lawyers not to book trials for from Feb. 17 to March, 31, 2014.
"They're also saying, 'if you have a court matter already scheduled, we may not be able to pay you for the work that you're doing," Canadian Bar Association - B.C. past-president Kerry Simmons said Friday while in Prince George.
"Some lawyers, in response to that are saying 'then let's adjourn everything.'"
Prince George lawyer Jon Duncan said he will adjourn cases booked for that period for which he depends on legal aid to pay the bills and will deal only with private matters during that time. Duncan said he's heard other lawyers will do the same.
"All of us have looked at our calendars during that time and said 'well OK, we've got to apply to adjourn this and do something else because nobody's prepared to work for free for six weeks," Duncan said.
The delay could mean cases could be thrown out because they've taken too long to resolve, in violation of the accused's charter rights.
"I know some lawyers plan to argue that this is a delay caused by the state and so, those files should be tossed out," Duncan said.
Legal aid funding has been a continuing source of contention between B.C.'s lawyers and the provincial government.
In 1993, a special tax on legal services was introduced to provide legal aid funding to the poor but governments have since diverted growing portions to general revenue. Victoria contributes about $72.5 million a year to legal aid but Simmons said the total would be well in excess of $100 million if all legal fee revenue went to the service.
Ironically, changes that have made the court system more efficient have played a role. Cases are now proceeding at a pace faster than the LSS can deal with, CBABC president Dean Crawford told CKNW this week.
The LSS is anticipating a $2.5-million shortfall for criminal matters. It was also facing a $500,000 deficit for child-protection cases, but Duncan said Friday the LSS has since rearranged its budget to deal with that concern.
At $11.81 per person, B.C. stands 10th out of 13 provinces and territories in per capita funding of legal aid, according to CBABC, with the national average at $16.21 and Ontario the highest at $20
The organization is asking the provincial government to increase funding by $18 million over the election cycle and over the longer term, by $50 million to reach pre-2002 levels as financial conditions improve.
Duncan said it costs about $100 an hour to run his practice with about 50 per cent going to overhead, but legal aid provides about $80 an hour with no increase since the early 1990s.
In an e-mail sent Friday, Justice Minister Suzanne Anton said she's had several meetings with the LSS "and we are working hard to resolve this issue."
It is a government priority to balance the budget, and all the branches within my ministry are working extremely hard to ensure that they stay within their budget, she added.
The LSS did not return a request for comment Friday.
- with files from Victoria Times-Colonist