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Legal Aid lawyers still on job in North Vancouver court

But protests escalate to provincial cuts that have 'gutted' service

LEGAL Aid lawyers who provide on-the-spot assistance at North Vancouver provincial court are continuing to provide legal help despite an escalating walkout by other Legal Aid lawyers.

Criminal lawyers at many of B.C.'s provincial courthouses refused to provide what's known as "duty counsel" service last week, as part of a protest against government underfunding for Legal Aid.

Lawyers have said they'll also refuse to act as "duty counsel" in the first two weeks of February, three weeks in March and all of April as part of an escalating protest.

But so far, lawyers in North Vancouver have not been taking part.

That's because so few lawyers are available to take on those duties in North Vancouver, they are booked many months in advance, said Dan Sudeyko, the lawyer who co-ordinates Legal Aid here on behalf of the Legal Services Society. "They already had a contractual obligation to do this," he said of the lawyers who acted as duty counsel at the courthouse for four days last week.

He said lawyers have been booked to fill those spots in North Vancouver until the end of June.

Sudeyko said he expects duty counsel to continue as normal, despite the job action in other courts.

Local lawyers still share concerns about underfunding of Legal Aid, he said, which has resulted in fewer and fewer people being eligible for government-funded legal help. "It's really an issue of the working poor," he said. "It's really troublesome."

Defence lawyer Richard Fowler, who sits on the executive of the B.C. Trial Lawyers Association, said funding for Legal Aid had been cut dramatically over the past decade. To balance its books - as legally required - the Legal Services Society has had to make the service available to fewer people, he said.

"Family law has been absolutely gutted," he said. "Child welfare work has been gutted." Even those facing serious criminal charges likely won't get help unless they are likely facing a jail sentence.

Without legal assistance, people sometimes choose to represent themselves in court, which ends up bogging down the system and resulting in huge delays, Fowler added.

The B.C. branch of the Canadian Bar Association has said more than 90 per cent of family law cases now involve at least one person who doesn't have a lawyer while up to 40 per cent of people facing charges in provincial criminal court also don't have a lawyer.

Fowler said in order to restore Legal Aid to the level that's needed, the government would have to increase funding by between $30 million and $40 million. Fewer lawyers are also willing to take on Legal Aid cases or act as duty counsel these days.

Sudeyko said those being paid by Legal Aid are likely to make about one-quarter of what they would if they were billing a client privately.

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