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Public Commission on Legal Aid in B.C. Hears Rural Perspectives

Over the past few months I have had the privilege to be involved in an important project in British Columbia known as the Public Commission on Legal Aid (“Public Commission”).

Although the scope of the Public Commission is province wide and therefore includes cities and communities of all sizes, I have been personally interested to hear the unique challenges faced by those in rural communities in regards to legal aid. Commissioner Leonard Doust, Q.C. will be releasing an official report of his findings sometime in 2011; however, I wanted to take the opportunity now to share some background on the Public Commission and some of themes that struck me as an individual attending the various Public Commission hearings throughout the province.

The need for a Public Commission on Legal Aid was identified through a series of meetings that took place in 2009 between a variety of community organizations and justice system stakeholders. The attendees at the meetings expressed a collective concern regarding legal aid in British Columbia and a strong desire to seek progressive solutions for the future of legal aid in the province. Acting on this collective will, the Public Commission was officially established in June of 2010 by a variety of organizations including The Canadian Bar Association (British Columbia), The Law Society of British Columbia, The Law Foundation of British Columbia, The British Columbia Crown Counsel Association, The Vancouver Bar Association and The Victoria Bar Association. 

In order to engage the public of British Columbia regarding their priorities for the future of legal aid in the province, an process was established that consisted of two principle activities: an open call for written submissions and an 11 community tour of the province to hear in person submissions. To date the Public Commission has received a significant amount of written submissions and has recently completed hearings in all 11 communities. In addition to visiting the larger urban centres of the province, the Public Commission has held hearings in numerous smaller communities including Terrace, Williams Lake, Nanaimo and Cranbrook.

Although similar themes were encountered in many locations, I was personally struck by the submissions made in rural communities and the additional challenges that are faced by those delivering and seeking legal aid services in these areas. The challenges include such items as:

  1. Difficulty accessing legal aid information due to lack of telephone and internet connectivity;
  2. Difficulty attending appointments or court matters due to lack of public transportation;
  3. Difficulty recruiting lawyers who will do legal aid work; and
  4. A general lack of legal aid resources in rural communities.

The most important common theme throughout the hearings however was the passion and commitment of the individuals from community groups and the legal profession to assisting those in need of legal aid services. While it was clear to me throughout the process that there are significant challenges ahead for legal aid in the province of British Columbia, the will to improve the system and the commitment necessary to do so was evident in every submission that I witnessed. This passion and commitment will be vital to the development of an improved system in British Columbia especially for the populations of small communities and rural areas of the province that face unique challenges not shared by their urban counterparts. 

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  1. If you, or the Commission, are interested in a special kind of case study about legal aid in rural areas you might look at the testimony of First Nations witnesses before the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples regarding Bill S-4 of the current session, the bill ostensibly providing for protection of marital property rights on the dissolution of a marriage on a reserve. Several women’s groups testified against the bill because it relied exclusively on provincial rules and access to the courts. The witnesses emphasized that they don’t have access to the courts that are almost always based in cities or towns. They also don’t have the means to retain counsel. Almost all the women witnesses recommended defeating or withdrawing the bill in its present state and drafting one in consultation with First Nations leaders and elders. The Aboriginal women senators voted against the bill because it did not fulfill its stated purpose.