Doctors are paid for through our taxes. Why not lawyers? Alex Hutchinson examines a case for universal legal care
· illustration by Matthew Feyld
It’s been an unusually invigorating year for legal reform activists. After more than a decade of neglect, what they like to call the “silent crisis” — the increasing inaccessibility of the justice system to average Canadians — has finally begun to tug at the edges of the public conscience. Newspapers are writing urgent stories about people like the Vancouver single mother who was forced to represent herself in an ultimately unsuccessful six-year custody battle with an abusive ex, because the $750 a month she earned as a part-time teacher, supplemented by subletting rooms in her house, disqualified her from legal aid. Canada’s chief justice, Beverley McLachlin, has sounded the alarm about the “epidemic” of self-represented litigants clogging the courts. And a pair of cases arguing that civil legal aid is a constitutional right have recently made it all the way to the Supreme Court, albeit with uniformly disappointing results so far. Most surprising of all, however, was conservative US radio personality Rush Limbaugh’s modest proposal, delivered during a rant about universal health care: “[If] it’s going to be mandatory, the government is going to make us go the doctor, then I have an idea,” he spluttered. “I think the government should make every American have access to a lawyer.”
In drawing this parallel, Limbaugh (who should know a thing or two about doctors and lawyers) might have inadvertently made the best case for putting “universal legal care” — an idea long resisted in Canada — on the political agenda. After all, if we think universal health care is such a bright idea, why wouldn’t the same arguments apply to the legal system? In both cases, the issue of basic access to a fundamental human right collides with the crippling cost of unforeseeable, low-probability calamities. You may not die from the negligence suit brought against you by the mailman who slips on your icy steps, but it can certainly ruin your life. Surely the least you deserve is a fair crack at defending yourself, even if you can’t afford the $60,000 tab for a typical three-day trial.
But lofty moral arguments don’t cut much ice in these efficiency-loving, tangible-results-demanding times. Those fighting to maintain medicare know that their strongest arguments come from the fact that Canada (like every other country in the world, save the Marshall Islands) actually spends less of its gdp on health care than the US does, and by many measures produces better outcomes, thanks in part to a broadly applied focus on prevention and early intervention. As strange as it sounds, legal reformers can make a similar case for universal legal care (let’s call it ulc) — one that rests as much on pragmatic considerations as it does on any national sense of altruism. That’s because a growing body of evidence suggests that letting someone’s minor legal problem go unresolved for the lack of a brief consultation with a lawyer is just as foolish — and, ultimately, expensive — as neglecting to treat a mole until it has metastasized into a gigantic, life-sucking, budget-busting ER job.
You may be under the impression that Canada already has a reasonable approximation of ulc. After all, we spent $659 million on legal aid programs in 2006–07. It is true that if you’re accused of a criminal offence that could put you behind bars and you earn less than, say, $13,000 a year (depending on where you live), you will be provided with a lawyer. Otherwise, you’re on the hook for lawyer’s fees that can average over $300 an hour, until your money runs out — which, if you inhabit the vast middle ground between dirt poor and Conrad Black, won’t take long. And if your case falls under the umbrella of civil law (you’re being sued or evicted), family law (you’re fighting for custody of the kids), or administrative law (you’ve been unjustly fired), your chances of qualifying for assistance are even slimmer. As a result, somewhere between 40 and 70 percent of trials now feature overmatched laymen bumbling through labyrinthine court procedures without the help of a lawyer.
These problems are now considerably more widespread than they were in the 1960s, when Canada’s legal aid system was created from the informal patchwork of pro bono services offered by lawyers at the time. The system gradually expanded until the 1990s, with the federal and provincial governments splitting the costs roughly fifty-fifty. In 1995, the federal government stopped matching provincial spending on civil legal aid, causing it to dwindle across the provinces. More generally, program cuts in the past decade and a half have pushed even criminal legal aid toward the bare minimum set out by court decisions.
One consequence has been an increasing reliance, once again, on pro bono initiatives, a noblesse oblige approach that critics say subjects justice to the whims of market forces; studies have found, not surprisingly, that pro bono activity increases when the legal profession is flush with cash. The number of private lawyers willing to accept legal aid cases, which pay about $80 per hour, is also dropping precipitously — a serious concern given that they outnumber staff lawyers by almost ten to one in our system. Even if the money was there, though, it’s not clear that simply jacking up fees is the right solution. A study conducted in the US last year found that private lawyers on hourly fees took longer to resolve cases, were more likely to go to trial, and once at trial were more likely to lose, earning sentences for their clients that were eight months longer, on average. And each case handled by private lawyers cost taxpayers an additional $5,800.
Of course, the current crisis is not just about cuts. “Over the last three decades, the role of law has steadily increased,” says Melina Buckley, a Vancouver lawyer and legal researcher specializing in access to justice. To a greater extent than ever before in history, our relationships with one another and with the state are regulated by law, and that carries with it an inevitable complexity that prevents us from turning back the clock to simpler, pre-legal aid days. “Just look at family law, which was virtually non-existent in the ’60s,” Buckley says. “It’s very positive that we have family law that sets out obligations upon marital breakdown. But if you can’t understand it on your own and you can’t get the assistance you need, then it’s meaningless.”
Buckley’s soft-spoken demeanour belies a fierce crusading streak that has most recently found expression on a four-person legal team assembled by the Canadian Bar Association to file a test case arguing that the failure to provide minimum levels of civil legal aid in British Columbia is a violation of constitutional rights. In late April, she and other members of the team gathered at the law offices of Camp Fiorante Matthews, a calm, carpeted oasis on the fourth floor of a modest brick building in downtown Vancouver, for an eleventh-hour strategy session. J. J. Camp, a prominent litigator (think hepatitis C and its $1.6-billion settlement) and the senior member of the team, summed up the situation: “We’ve gone down to ignominious defeat at every level,” he began, smiling wryly, “except one.” After dismissals by the BC Supreme Court and the BC Court of Appeal, the team had three days left to fine-tune its written arguments to persuade the Supreme Court of Canada to hear the case.
First filed in June 2005, the case alleges that the exclusions and restrictions in BC’s civil legal aid constitute “a systemic denial of access to justice to and systemic discrimination against Poor People.” Approaching the issue from this moral high ground — as a public-interest test case rather than a suit based on wrongs done to a specific individual — is one of the reasons the lower courts have thus far refused to hear the case. But attempts to bring individual cases to court to argue for the right to legal representation have also failed to get a hearing.
In 2003 and 2004, the BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre litigated on behalf of four clients, none of whom could afford a lawyer, who were being sued by the government for alleged overpayment of disability and income assistance benefits. One was a single father of three who was suffering from leukemia and who had developed a permanently disabling condition after undergoing a bone marrow transplant; the others were in similarly difficult situations. The government’s response: it simply dropped three of the suits and settled the fourth out of court, rendering any arguments about the constitutional right to counsel moot. “And then they wrote a letter saying, ‘Well, if you have any more clients like this, just give us a call,’” Buckley says, shaking her head. “We couldn’t believe it.”