The threatened adjournment of hundreds of criminal trials by B.C.s legal aid lawyers has been averted.
The Legal Services Society of B.C. reached an agreement with Attorney General Suzanne Anton on Oct. 4 and is no longer recommending that lawyers avoid booking hearings for the six weeks between Feb. 17 and March 31, 2014.
I can provide assurance that LSS will be able to pay accounts for all existing referrals to the end of the fiscal year, chief executive officer Mark Benton said in a special message to the bar.
Despite the agreement, the society might still have to cut some services, Benton said.
[The society] continues to face a significant cost pressure in criminal tariff services. ... Unless they are relieved, these pressures will require LSS to significantly reduce some important client services for a period of time between November 2013 and April 2014.
Lawyers had planned to submit applications to adjourn the cases beginning Oct. 7
In a brief dated September 2013, the society -- the government-funded agency that provides legal aid in B.C. -- advised lawyers not to book any criminal or child protection cases for the last six weeks of the fiscal year. The brief advised lawyers that the society was facing a $2.5-million deficit in the criminal tariff and a $500,000 deficit in the child-protection tariff this year.
The funding crisis has been driven by federal legislative changes such as the Safe Streets and Communities Act, the provincial court backlog-reduction initiative, and the appointments of judges and prosecutors, which have made the courts more efficient.
As a result, the society is paying for more services than it budgeted for, Benton said.
In 1993, a tax on legal services was introduced to provide legal aid services to the poor. But the money is often diverted to other purposes, said defence lawyer Michael Mulligan.
When this government was first elected, they radically cut funding to the society, but continued to collect the tax at the same level, he said.