What’s new at Legal Aid BC? Plenty. Senior management at LABC (CEO and COO) are no longer new. A couple new board members. A new strategic plan for LABC. A new name for non-legal aides for lawyers and clients (“navigators”); a new LABC outreach effort, travelling to communities across BC to meet with you and our mutual partners who together serve our clients in legal distress. And a new compensation package for legal aid lawyers. Let’s start with the new $$$.
Our terms of engagement with legal aid service providers are set for three years: the tariff+ for legal aid lawyers in the private bar was set by agreement, after 9 months of negotiations between the BC Government, the Association of Legal Aid Lawyers (ALL) and LABC. A separate three-year labour agreement was also reached between LABC and its lawyers’ union, the Professional Employees Association, at the end of 2022.
What’s in the tariff+ for the next three years? A retroactive increase to the tariff of between 11.34% and 13.76% over the three-year term of the agreement, effective April 1, 2022 (no joke, despite the date). The “+” are those items sought by ALL which were not necessarily captured by the tariff itself, including: investments aimed at addressing legal aid lawyer recruitment and retention challenges, particularly in remote locations and in family law; professional development; and a new policy engagement agreement with the Association of Legal Aid Lawyers.
Kudos and thanks to ALL and its leadership for all the effort that went into bargaining. As you all probably know, the current Government of BC has developed the practice of negotiating the tariff with ALL, with the Ministry of the Attorney General acting as the voice of government; ALL speaks for the legal aid bar; and LABC assists both parties, mostly by costing items, but also by advising what’s doable from our end. This is a process that I inherited as CEO, and I continued the practice of asking our Executive Vice President, Heidi Mason, to be our lead at the tariff bargaining table. Thanks to Heidi and her team for their work too, which involved some shuttle diplomacy, and a lot of costing items proposed by ALL or sought by Government. (And while I’m thanking folks, thanks to the bargaining unit for PEA too, for the work they did for their agreement with LABC).
Is this good news? Yes, I say it’s good news, even if it’s never enough, even though ALL gave its all. My experience is that the Ministry of the Attorney General becomes the spokesperson and bargaining agent for what BC calls “PSEC” – the Public Sector Employers’ Council. This is the central point of fiscal power that coordinates collective agreements and the like, across the Government. One of the reasons it took 9 months of bargaining is because PSEC had to finalize its agreements with its major employee unions and associations, before finalizing the ALL agreement. Will the day ever come when the tariff reaches a level that you and I would say is fair? In my view, that’s an answer for democracy to answer, no matter how brilliant the bar’s advocacy to the executive branch, unless public interest litigation changes the supply and demand for legal aid services in BC and Canada more generally (e.g., see Single Mothers’ Alliance of BC Society v British Columbia, 2022 BCSC 2193).
A small but mighty part of Legal Aid BC is funded mostly by the Law Foundation of BC, and also the Notaries of BC. That part makes up less than 5% of our budget, although LABC is by far the Foundation’s largest grantee, so we are very grateful for their generosity. The LABC division that does the work is called Public Legal Education and Information (PLEI). For many years, the work done by PLEI included the provision of services not covered by the legal aid tariff. So PLEI developed publications and websites to serve those folks denied legal aid coverage by LABC, and/or folks who needed legal services for areas that LABC never or no longer covered. Poverty law, welfare law, wills, mortgage foreclosures, housing laws, and other public legal education and information services and products. In 2022, LABC consulted with lawyers, stakeholders, the government and with the Law Foundation, and decided to head in a different direction. Henceforth, we would spend our Law Foundation funding, that 5% of our budget, on existing LABC clientele. In other words, you, and your clients.
Who will do this new work? We are calling them “navigators,” but we are looking forward to meeting with you in your community in 2023, as we try to refine the new approach. If you hate the name, we can talk about that. What do navigators do? They help you and your clients get to court on time, help them meet their various obligations arising from their criminal, family, child protection services or immigration matter. They help them navigate the system, in other words. That will include connecting your clients to other social service providers, in the Not-for-profit, housing and health care sectors. The goal is to connect navigators with your clients around the time that LABC connects the clients with you, their lawyer. It’s all new and we will share more in the days, weeks, and months to come.
New Strategic Plan & LABC Connect
I’ve spilled enough ink for one “brief,” and I do not want to steal my thunder before I get to your community via Legal Aid Connect. We will be holding a reception and dinner for legal aid lawyers in the Vancouver region on February 28, followed by a free forum for Vancouver tariff lawyers and local service providers on March 1, where I will share details about our strategic direction, but mostly to listen, learn and say thank you for their hard work. That outreach effort is being called Legal Aid Connect. (You can tell us if you hate that name too).
After the Vancouver effort, we will take this show on the road by reaching out to various BC communities for feedback on what is working well and advice for how we can further team up to achieve better outcomes for our clients and keep you in the legal aid business.
Thank you, thank you, thank you. I want to again thank you for the work that you do for our clients, and with that please find some further updates below from Legal Aid BC. Hope to see you soon at the next Legal Aid Connect in your region.
Michael Bryant, CEO