An angry rift has developed between legal aid lawyers who are staging an escalating strike to press the government for more funding and those who have opted to continue serving low-income clients.
Some in the usually staid and amicable legal profession have even taken to calling colleagues “scabs” for refusing to join the job action.
“I’ve certainly heard people saying it,” said Bentley Doyle, spokesman for the Trial Lawyers Association of B.C. “Some people are very upset.”
The term isn’t accurate, he said, because participating lawyers aren’t a true union.
And he said the aim should be to welcome more converts to intensify pressure on the province to provide more money for the under-funded legal aid system.
“This is not about inflaming things,” Doyle said. “We want to attract more people to the cause.”
Participating legal aid lawyers are refusing to represent new adults arrested on criminal charges who cannot afford their own lawyer.
They withheld service for one week in January and the first two weeks of February.
The strike ramps up to three weeks in March and then all of April.
Doyle said there are hundreds of lawyers across B.C. supporting the legal aid strike and roughly 50 continuing to provide service.
He said there are four lawyers at the Surrey courthouse continuing to provide legal aid, as well as three in North Vancouver, two in Port Coquitlam and a couple in Richmond.
Vancouver courts also have three legal aid lawyers still working, but they can’t possibly represent all the clients seeking help there.
“North Vancouver and Surrey are areas where we’re not strong,” he said. “But we’re very strong in Vancouver and the Interior and up north.”
Doyle said New Westminster and Chilliwack courts are under a full withdrawal of local legal aid lawyers on designated weeks.
He said the job action began with 38 of B.C.’s 82 court houses under a full legal aid withdrawal, adding that increased to 53 in February.
“It’s going well – the support has grown from the time of the first wave.”
The Legal Services Society of B.C., which administers legal aid with the budget assigned by the province, has responded by dispatching outside lawyers to go to the trouble spots to fill in.
Among them is Victoria lawyer Kevin McCullough, who said he and partners from his firm – McCullough Blazina Dieno Gustafson & Watt – have succeeded in maintaining normal legal aid service levels in Surrey, Vancouver and Victoria.
McCullough said he’s not willing to withdraw what he calls “emergency” legal aid services from people arrested in criminal cases who may otherwise be stuck in jail.
“I will have nothing to do with it,” he said of the strike. “It doesn’t feel right to me.”
He said he’s already given up holiday time this year to provide legal aid during the strike weeks and will sacrifice more personal time to fight the job action in March and April.
Nor does he believe the strike will force the government to bend, given the province’s large budget deficit.
McCullough said it’s “bizarre” for private lawyers – who are independent businesses – to use the word “scab” or to purport they act as a unified force.
Although Doyle suggested importing outside lawyers is adding to the costs of the strike, Legal Services Society executive director Mark Benton said legal aid lawyers must visit some communities anyway, so travel costs aren’t unusual and any extra incurred has so far been minimal.
He said overall legal aid costs are actually down significantly because the society isn’t paying for as much service during the strike.
Benton said criminal duty counsel spending was $63,000 in the first week of January, down from $80,000 for the same period a year ago.
“Any under-spend on our part continues to be part of the Legal Services Society’s resources,” Benton added. “We reallocate those to other services where we can.”
The strike does not apply to legal aid areas such as family and immigration law.
Private lawyers who act as legal aid duty counsel are paid $84 to $93 an hour depending on years of experience. The rates had been $80 an hour from 1991 to 2006, when they were raised to the current levels.
Legal aid funding has been cut by 27 per cent over the last decade, from $96 million in 2001 to about $67 million.
A public commission into legal aid last year concluded B.C. is failing its most disadvantaged citizens, leaving too many representing themselves and adding to court congestion.
Photo above: Victoria trial lawyer Kevin McCullough