Anyone looking for a sign of the times for the state of access to justice in British Columbia will find at least 100 of them sprinkled throughout the province. In its efforts to provide maximum accessibility to some measure of free legal counsel for low- and modest-income British Columbians, Access Pro Bono (BC’s largest pro bono legal service provider) operates pro bono legal advice clinics in 100 different locations across BC— in communities stretching from the 59th parallel down to the American border, from the Rocky Mountains over to the Pacific shores. Pro bono clinics are now more common in BC than outdoor hockey rinks, Canadian Tire stores and Boston Pizza restaurants; pro bono legal services are more widely available to British Columbians than moonlit games of shinny, Motomaster car batteries and Pasta Tuesdays.
The weaving of pro bono legal services into the cultural fabric of BC communities is a bittersweet phenomenon. On one hand, it reflects a pervasive spirit of benevolence and volunteerism among lawyers, and a healthy respect for the rule of law. It evokes warm and folksy images of kind-hearted lawyers counseling local citizens who find themselves a little down on their luck. On the other hand, it signals that many British Columbians cannot afford to pay market rates for critical legal services, nor can they rely on government to fill the affordability gap. It is no coincidence that the decline in access to justice in BC parallels the steady service cuts to its legal aid system.
Last year, the BC Branch of the Canadian Bar Association launched a Public Commission on Legal Aid to investigate the effects of BC’s hobbled legal aid system. The Commission travelled to 11 different communities— large and small— where local pro bono lawyers and community advocates talked about their frustrations in advising and representing marginalized people whose types of legal issues were once covered by legal aid. Particularly in rural towns and cities, they told of clients whose legal problems had grown from bad to worse to life-threatening because of no early and reliable access to free legal assistance or representation. For many of their more remote clients, the negative effects of legal service gaps were compounded by factors of mobility and distance. Some clients spent their last bit of money on a Greyhound ride to the nearest pro bono clinic.
In mid-October, the BC Branch of the CBA followed up on its Public Commission on Legal Aid with a new public awareness campaign bearing the slogan, “Real Justice Means Fair Access”. President Sharon Matthews said that the campaign is fact-based and intended to awaken latent public support for legal aid:
“Our research shows that the more the public knows about the real costs of continuing to under-fund legal aid, the more supportive they are of legal aid. People understand that real justice can only be achieved through equal access and that it is our mothers, children and grandparents who are being most negatively impacted by the status quo.”
Matthews added that the campaign is not meant to be adversarial but is instead intended to provide the provincial government with the public support it ostensibly needs in order to start rebuilding the system.
For now in BC, the system is being reluctantly rebuilt without much help from government. Access Pro Bono is expanding its use of Skype clinics to extend its reach to people living in isolated communities where few or no lawyers practice. Such clinics only require that a client have internet access in order to link by video to a pro bono lawyer providing legal advice from the comfort of his or her faraway office. The Skype clinics also provide private and accessible means of connecting clients with particular legal, language or cultural issues to remote pro bono lawyers trained to serve their sensitive needs. A woman dealing with a violent domestic situation in a small remote community, for example, can connect by Skype on a smartphone to a pro bono lawyer associated with a women’s support services organization in a big city. With its greater in-person service reach, Access Pro Bono is also talking to the Legal Services Society (BC’s legal aid provider) about having its rural pro bono clinic lawyers perform legal aid intake and occasionally take on legal aid clients who first present as pro bono clients.
Across the country in Nova Scotia, the provincial government is funding the same concept of remote legal advice. Rural Cape Bretoners will have access to free legal advice on family law matters by virtue of a pilot project using video-conferencing technology. Legal aid lawyers from Halifax, Port Hawkesbury and Sydney will advise people on family law issues including divorce, division of assets and debt, child and spousal support, and custody arrangements. In a refreshing statement of commitment to providing access to justice to all individuals, provincial Justice Minister Ross Landry said: “Government is committed to making the justice system more accessible for all Nova Scotians. Not everyone can take advantage of this free service in person.”
The difference between BC (where pro bono clinics are nearing a saturation point) and Nova Scotia (where there are very few organized pro bono service providers) in the application of the same remote service delivery concept revives a fundamental question regarding the role of organized pro bono legal services in any system for providing universal access to justice: When does pro bono serve to alleviate the political pressure on government to adequately fund legal aid? It is perhaps tempting to say “sooner than later”, but then who is willing to risk forsaking thousands of individuals in critical need of legal help on the hope that government develops a conscience?