Two weeks after B.C.’s attorney general announced a deal to keep legal aid lawyers working, staff lawyers for the society operating that system have issued strike notice for Nov. 1.
The lawyers will walk off the job for one day while the government celebrates Access to Justice Week.
While it’s rank-and-file B.C. lawyers who do legal aid work, it’s the 26 Legal Services Society (LSS) staff lawyers – mostly women and indigenous professionals – who are the first point of contact for those seeking help navigating the legal system.
“They are the difference between a vulnerable individual pleading inappropriately in a complex and overwhelming process, and that same individual receiving comprehensive legal representation that protects their interests and rights,” the Professional Employees Association representing the staffers said in a news release.
B.C. Attorney General David Eby said Oct. 15 that Victoria had reached a framework agreement with the lawyers who do legal aid work to provide stable access to justice for those unable to afford lawyers.
While no money was put on the table, the government said the agreement meant more lawyers would be available to take on legal aid work and increase access to justice for marginalized people.
Eby also said the system provides low-income people with financial support to hire a lawyer to advise and represent them in criminal, refugee and child welfare hearings.
The association said the LSS staff lawyers who also manage and staff the 10 parent legal aid and regional legal aid centres throughout B.C.
The association said Eby agreed in March to a 25 per cent wage increase for the 1,000 legal aid contract or tariff lawyers, with additional wage increases over the next three years were announced earlier this month.
“LSS staff lawyers have been offered a two per cent annual increase over three years,” the association said. “That is not enough.”
The association said without higher increases, legal aid centres would continue to face challenges recruiting and retaining qualified staff lawyers.
A review of the legal aid system completed in January by lawyer Jamie Maclaren said the LSS’ current mixed model of service delivery tilts heavily toward the tariff model.
Maclaren said more balance in the system could be found in a mixed model with distribution of legal aid cases among tariff, clinic or staff lawyers according to who is best suited to the task. He said a mix of community legal clinics providing family law and poverty law services, specialty clinics, indigenous justice centres, an experimental criminal law office and a major case team of lawyers and paralegals specializing in long and complex criminal cases could lead to system cost savings and better client service.
“We are calling on government to negotiate a fair and equitable collective agreement. This is an opportunity to enable sustainable legal aid and retain and attract good staff lawyers to help B.C.’s most vulnerable. We believe all British Columbians should be afforded the same access to justice,” said association executive director Scott McCannell.
This isn’t the first threat of lawyers’ strike action in the legal aid system this year. Lawyers who take the cases threatened to walk out, voting 97 per cent tobegin withdrawing services April 1.
Notice of the strike came as Eby proclaimed Oct. 27 to Nov. 2 as Access to Justice Week.
"For too long, British Columbians faced barriers when seeking justice," Eby said in a news release. "I'm proud of the results our government is making towards improving access.”
The government is expected to comment on the dispute Tuesday.