Committed A-G needed
to oversee vast judicial reform

Ian Mulgrew, Vancouver Sun, Dec. 28, 2011


The growing disparity between the legal services available to poor and aver-age British Columbians and what they need is becoming a crisis.

For the past year, various stakeholders in the province’s legal system have warned that too many ordinary people are being hurt and disadvantaged by this intolerable situation.

They say corrosive societal repercussions are in the offing if cash-strapped Victoria doesn’t find a lot more money in the coming budget to ensure access to justice.

Dramatic changes must be discussed to prevent disaster.

The debate began in March with the release of Len Doust’s alarming Public Commission into Legal Aid report.

The respected Vancouver lawyer said tens of millions were needed just to get us back to where we were when the Liberals took office a decade ago.

It landed with an ugly thud and was ignored.

Lawyers across the province initiated campaigns to draw attention to the deteriorating situation; judges, too, started speaking out.

As the year wound down, even B.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Bauman warned that we were on the edge of a precipice.

He pointed to court closures and emergency measures in U.S. states as a result of governmental failure to deal with similar issues.

The problems are obvious: Most British Columbians can’t afford a lawyer no matter how serious their predicament.

Unless they are criminally charged, most people will not qualify for government-funded aid. In more and more criminal proceedings, they’re on their own as well.

And most of those who find themselves without help and mired in a legal mess are enraged by a system that is so archaic and complicated it seems impossible to negotiate and makes them feel stupid.

Which isn’t even to mention that those who represent them-selves and ignore the hoary maxim that a lawyer who rep-resents himself has a fool for a client get the kind of results you’d expect.

These are real people — abused mothers fighting for child support, long-term ten-ants dealing with absentee slumlords, minimum-wage workers denied a paycheque, the mentally challenged accused of petty crime. Experts across North America have been reporting for half a decade that the justice gap is growing and the struggling economy is only widening it.

What’s worse, social science research establishes the longer a legal problem goes unaddressed, the greater the cost to the public because of the negative health and social fallouts: Legal battles induce stress, cause health ailments and a constellation of related troubles.

There are solutions. Big law firms could commit to increasing pro bono services; retired lawyers could similarly con-tribute their expertise, as they are at the missing women’s inquiry; more paralegals or less highly trained people could handle uncontested proceedings; and Provincial Court judges and others in the system could freeze their already overly generous salaries and fees. Of course, a lot more money is needed but a number of other cultural, structural and legislative changes are required.

B.C. is in need of wholesale judicial reform.

Yet Premier Christy Clark cannot find a committed attorney-general to deal with this degenerating situation.

She has maintained for six months now the old, question-able system of a dual solicitor-general/attorney-general.

That’s bad enough but she has had a caretaker in the role — Prince George Liberal MLA Shirley Bond has neither the heft nor the understanding of the law, the system and the players to tackle these issues.

The coming year does not augur well.

Since there is no one in cabinet up to this critical task, it’s time the government looked outside.

Clark should consider naming an attorney-general who is unelected but committed to sweeping judicial reform — someone who isn’t beholden to a stakeholder group or a political party, someone who really wants to fix B.C.’s dysfunctional legal system and restore access to justice for ordinary people.

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