March 20, 2012
The Hon. Christy Clark
Premier, Government of British Columbia
PO Box 9041 STN Prov Govt
Victoria, BC V8W 9E1
Dear Premier Clark,
Re: Open letter on the budget for BC’s Justice System
We write seeking clarification of the statements you made in the Legislature on February 15, 2012, regarding the current funding allocated to BC’s justice system. You said:
“We’re putting more money in at the same time that crime is dropping, that the number of cases going to court is dropping, and the length of cases is actually staying the same. It just doesn’t add up. We are adding more money to the system, but in addition to that, we have a great responsibility to British Columbians. That is to get to the bottom of why, while there is more money and less work coming into the system, the delays are getting longer.
However, as set out below, your government’s own documents contradict your assertions. We are concerned that you may be relying on faulty or inaccurate information in your statements to the Legislature and the public on these important matters. We request your clarification as to what information you have to support your assertions that your government is “putting more money” into the justice system, and how that information squares with the Ministry of the Attorney General’s budget estimates and 2010/11 Annual Service Plan Report.
“We are adding more money to the [justice] system”
This statement is contradicted by the Ministry of the Attorney General’s budget estimates, which in fact show a significant decrease in the Attorney General’s operating budget over the past four years. The Ministry Budget Summaries show the following budget estimates (in 000s):
- 2008/9: $530,6441
- 2009/10: $465,1982
- 2010/11: $457,6393
- 2011/12: $443,2044
These documents also show that the budgetary allocation to the judiciary has decreased over the past four years, and allocations to prosecution services have remained constant; thus, accounting for inflation, both key line items in the Ministry’s budget have in fact decreased. These numbers do not reconcile with your assertion that the government is providing more money to BC’s justice system.
“The number of cases going to court is dropping”
The Ministry of the Attorney General’s 2010/11 Annual Service Plan Report directly contradicts the assertion that the demands being placed on BC courts have lessened. The Service Plan states:
- The volume of small claims cases in Provincial Court has increased by 13.7% over the past five years, to over 19,000 new cases opened in 2010/11;
- The total number of Provincial and Supreme Criminal Court cases (including adult, youth and traffic) coming into the system has increased by 7% over the last five years; “The length of cases is staying the same”
This assertion is also contradicted by the Service Plan, which states that criminal trials have “steadily become more expensive, lengthy and complicated.” Further, despite the decrease in the crime rate, the complexity of criminal cases continues to increase, and large criminal trials that consume a disproportionate amount of justice system resources are becoming more common.
“Delays are getting longer”
This is true – the delays in scheduling both civil and criminal matters in Provincial Court has increased; the courts themselves report substantial delays for obtaining civil and criminal appearance dates. For example, the median length of time it takes for a small claims case to get to trial has increased to 400 days, up from 320 days in 2008/9.
Notably, the Ministry failed to meet any of its goals with respect to timelines for civil and family matters. For example, the median time it took for an applicant in a family matter to obtain an initial order was 98 days. The Service Plan attributes this to “increased scheduling delays in Provincial Court for child protection cases and family hearings.” Such lengthy delays in these types of hearings are particularly troubling given the significant and serious interests at stake in family and child protection matters.
However, these facts must be placed in context – you say that “while there is more money and less work coming onto the system, the delays are getting longer”. In fact, as you can see from your own documentation, there is less money and more work straining the justice system, which may well explain the longer delays.
Funding for Legal Aid
Additionally, you commented in the Legislature that there is “more money for legal aid.”
The $2.1 million that will be added to the Legal Services Society’s budget in 2012/13 to support family law and child protection services will only allow LSS to maintain current levels of service, and represents the first funding increase for LSS’s family law programs since 2005.10 After the decimation of family law legal aid in 2002 and the slashing of LSS’s budget by almost 40 percent over three years, this tiny increase will do little to assist the thousands of individuals – women in particular – who need legal advice and representation to effectively access the justice system and meaningfully assert their legal rights. Numerous individuals and organizations highlighted the need for adequate legal aid funding in the government’s budget consultation last fall. As Sharon Matthews, president of the BC Branch of the Canadian Bar Association pointed out, “Without an adequately-funded legal aid program, the justice system will continue to face increased costs and stresses from unnecessary case filings, prolonged hours of trials and hearing and the attendant delays, and decreased public confidence as important cases get thrown out due to delay.”
However, the government has declined the opportunity to invest in an effective and efficient justice system in its latest budget, maintaining the status quo for the province’s legal sector. While the budget allocated an additional $237-million over the next three years to the Ministry of Justice, much of that funding is reserved for existing services: $66-million to keep 168 police officers hired in 2009 to combat gang activity; $42-million to sustain court and prosecution-services staff hired within the past year to avoid the closing of some courtrooms; and $30-million to fund RCMP cost increases, mainly salary and pension expenditures.
The underfunding of the justice system, and legal aid in particular, undermines our democracy and the rule of law. When low-income clients cannot access to legal aid, they do not have equal access to the justice system, and cannot assert their rights on par with those who have the resources to pay for legal representation. This profound inequality in access to justice erodes public trust in the fairness and integrity of our court system. We agree with the multiple statements from judges across the province in past months regarding the dysfunctional state of our justice system. Its ability to handle its caseload is “abysmal” and requires immediate action. The system is “threatened, if not imperilled,” by the lack of funding, which has contributed to “intolerable delays” that result in serious cases being thrown out of court. We can say it no better than a frustrated Justice Russell of the BC Supreme Court who, in deciding a family case involving two middle class litigants who did not qualify for the “almost non-existent legal aid available,” but who could also not afford representation for their complex legal matter, wrote: “It is shameful that in our wealthy province we no longer have resources available which would give real help to parties in this situation.”
Premier Clark, we call on you to clarify your comments in the Legislature on February 15, 2012, and to tackle the crisis in our justice system in a manner that prioritizes equality, fairness and the right to access justice. In particular, we seek your clarification regarding the information you were relying on in claiming that there is more money for the justice system, the number of cases are dropping and the length of cases is staying the same, in light of the contradictory information contained in the government documents set out above. We are pleased that you want “to get to the bottom” of the problems in the justice system, and we hope you will do so on the basis of the real facts. We look forward to your response.
Co-Chairs, on behalf of the Coalition for Public Legal Services, including:
Access Pro Bono Society of British Columbia
ARA Mental Health Action, Research & Advocacy Association of Greater Vancouver
Atira Women’s Resource Society
Battered Women’s Support Services
BC Coalition of People with Disabilities
BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre
Community Legal Assistance Society
Ending Violence Association of BC (EVA BC)
First United Church
Kootenai Community Centre
Okanagan Advocacy & Resource Society (OARS)
Parent Support Services Society of BC
Pivot Legal Society
The Poverty and Human Rights Centre
Together Against Poverty Society
Tri-City Transitions Society
West Coast LEAF
Vancouver & Lower Mainland Multicultural Family Support Services
Hon. Adrian Dix, Leader of the Official Opposition
Hon. Shirley Bond, Minster of Justice and Attorney General
Hon. Leonard Krog, Opposition Critic for the Attorney General
Please send return mail care of West Coast LEAF, 555 – 409 Granville Street, Vancouver BC, V6C 1T2
6 At page 13.
8 See Performance Measure 4: Civil and Family Timelines, at page 20.
9 At page 21.
10 Ministry of the Attorney General Press Release, “Legal aid for children and families increased” 30 December 2011, online: http://www.newsroom.gov.bc.ca/2011/12/legal-aid-for-families-and-children-increased.html.
11 Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services, Report on the Budget 2012 Consultations, online: http://www.leg.bc.ca/cmt/39thparl/session-4/fgs/reports/PDF/Rpt-FGS-39-4-1stRpt-Budget2012Consultations-2011-NOV-15.pdf.
12 Sunny Dhillon, “For BC’s strained justice system, a status-quo budget” 22 February 2012, The Globe and Mail, online: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/british-columbia/bc-politics/for-bcs-strained-justice-system-a-status-quo-budget/article2345751/.
13 R. v. Blattler, 2012 BCPC 0035 at para. 57, per Justice Steinberg.
14 Jonathan Fowlie, “Lack of court funding targeted by B.C.’s chief justice,” 24 November 2011, The Vancouver Sun, online: http://www.vancouversun.com/business/chief+justice+sounds+alarm+over+lack+funding+courts/5762815/story.html.
15 DeKova v. DeKova, 2011 BCSC 1271 at paras. 14, 15.