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New immigration publications and legal aid lawyer services

As we set out in our earlier ELAN entry, there have been some big changes recently to immigration law in Canada (Bill C-31). This includes a reworking of the refugee claim process.

As a consequence of these changes, our publication Your Guide to the Refugee Claim Process is no longer available, as it’s now outdated. To outline the new refugee claim process, we’ve produced a new flow chart (available online only). As well, we’ve created a new bilingual infocard to promote our new legal aid immigration phone line. The infocard text is in English and Spanish.

To find out more about the updated legal aid coverage and services for immigration matters, check out our immigration problems page.

The Salvation Army’s Pro Bono Program closes its doors

We’re sad to report that the Salvation Army’s Pro Bono Program has been shut down as of November 26, 2012. The program ran a number of pro bono legal advice clinics throughout the province.

The Pro Bono Program began in 1985 with just one lawyer offering pro bono services to those who could not afford a lawyer. It grew over the years, and by 1999 had 22 legal clinics around BC. Since its beginning, the program has helped many people with low incomes resolve their legal problems and access justice.

The closing of the Pro Bono Program leaves Access Pro Bono as the last independent provider of full-service legal clinics in BC. In response to the closure, Jamie Maclaren, Access Pro Bono’s Executive Director, said:

“Access Pro Bono is sad to learn of the closure of its long-time pro bono service partner.  We will be making every effort to serve clients who would otherwise be served by the Salvation Army by increasing our client intake levels, by extending more telephone and Skype services to rural and remote communities, and by setting up new clinic locations in BC communities that are now left unserved.”

It’s unclear whether all the clinics will remain closed or if some may reopen under different auspices.  Check back for updates as information becomes available.

A child can have five parents and four other things I learned at the 2012 Provincial Advocates Conference

Last week was the 2012 LSS/Law Foundation Provincial Advocates Conference. More than 100 people from across the province who work directly with those who need legal help gathered in Richmond for an intensive three-day conference. I was there on the first day, floating between sessions and talking to people. Here are five things I learned:

1. The transition to the new Family Law Act will be very interesting

All right, I may have had an inkling of this before but it really sank in when JP Boyd outlined a scenario, albeit a far-fetched one, where a child could legally have five parents; two intended parents who enlist two donors (sperm and egg) and then use a surrogate to carry the child. That’s an extreme example and one I’d wager you won’t be seeing that often. But there are many smaller changes in the act that you’ll see every day and that will take some getting used to.

“We have a really brand new way of talking about kids in the new legislation.”

With the new act coming into effect in just a few months, it was understandably the main focus of the conference and one of the most popular topics for participants. JP’s session was the most popular one I saw all day.

If you’re interested in what JP was talking about, read our Guide to the New BC Family Law Act, which he co-wrote.

2. Aboriginal access to justice is complicated

Two things struck me from the session Updates in Aboriginal Law: Aboriginal law can be really complicated, and there aren’t enough lawyers in remote communities who practice it. This means that in many communities, if you have an issue of, say, dividing property on a reserve, you have to navigate a complicated system with little-to-no help. What I heard from the advocates is that this situation is leaving a lot of people in limbo with nowhere to go to for help.

3. Advocates love sharing advice and tips

In all the sessions I went to, the advocates were keen to share their stories and any tips or advice they had. Advocates often face an uphill battle, working on complicated and stressful issues with few resources. It seemed to me that that maybe the most helpful part of the conference was getting a bunch of advocates from all across BC into one room so they can vent, commiserate, and tell each other about how they solved problems that they all encounter.

4. The Provincial Call Centre is working better

Part of the day was spent on updates about legal aid. The thing that stood out the most to me was that the wait times for our Call Centre have been significantly cut. No one likes being on hold. It used to be that you’d have to wait, on average, seven minutes before you could talk to one of our workers. Now the wait time is around two minutes. Because people don’t have to wait as long, fewer of them are hanging up before they get to talk to anyone. The number of people who abandon their calls has been cut in half since the wait times went down.

5. Conferences are really hard to put on

Just watching people here at LSS putting this conference together over the last few months has been exhausting. They’ve been organizing the conference for months and the pace has just gotten more and more frantic as November approached. On behalf of everyone who attended, I’d like to thank my colleagues at LSS and friends at the Law Foundation who worked so hard to put this conference together.

If you didn’t get a chance to attend the conference, don’t worry. Sometime in the not-too-distant future, we’ll upload all the conference materials onto our site. We’ll make an announcement here once they’ve been uploaded, so keep your eyes open.

Nate Prosser is the online outreach coordinator at LSS.

What to expect when you’re expecting (to meet with a legal aid lawyer)

One question we consistently encounter at LSS is “What can I expect when I go to meet a legal aid lawyer?” Many people have never had any experience with the legal system before, so they have no idea what to expect. “What do I need to bring with me to meet a lawyer? Do I call the judge “Your Honour”? Is the lawyer taking too long to get back to me?”

Questions about the legal process are also getting more and more important as more and more people represent themselves in court. We’ve tried to address this topic in our fact sheets How to work well with a lawyer and What you can expect from a lawyer, but the answers to these questions are often complicated and depend on the circumstances. So it was interesting to come across JP Boyd’s Litigant’s Bill of Rights (which he warns is a work in progress).

It’s meant to describe what you can expect when you represent yourself in court. It sets out your rights in the legal system and your responsibilities to that system. Not only is it a good resource for people wondering about the legal system, but it’s also a good jumping-off point for a discussion about BC’s legal system. JP is asking for comments and discussion on the Litigant’s Bill of Rights, so feel free to let him know what you think.

Family mediation pilot project expanded across BC

The BC government has expanded the Notice to Mediate (Family) pilot project to all Supreme Court registries in BC. (This program used to be available only in Nanaimo, Victoria, New Westminster, and Vancouver.) This means that people with family law cases in BC Supreme Court will have to go to at least one mediation session if the other party involved in the case requests it. The law will allow exceptions if mediation would be unsafe.

Mediation is meant to help families keep their cases out of court. The mediator first meets with each party to discuss how mediation works and to review important documents, and then meets with all parties together. By resolving issues outside of court, mediation encourages families to reach agreements without the time, cost, and emotional burden of going to court.

For more information, see our fact sheet, Making mediation happen in a BC family law case on the Family Law in BC website.

Clicklaw’s HelpMap

Finding legal services in your area can be difficult if you don’t know where to start. Thankfully, Clicklaw has a great resource to help you find what you need. Clicklaw is a website whose mission is to provide greater access to legal information and education for all British Columbians. It does so by linking to online publications and resources from a number of organizations, including LSS. (See also our June 2010 ELAN article about Clicklaw.)

Clicklaw’s HelpMap is a particularly useful — and unique — tool for finding local resources. On the HelpMap page, you can search by keyword (e.g., divorce, aboriginal, family violence, etc.) and location.

Entering your term takes you to a page that contains all the results that fulfill your criteria and are nearest to you (including province-wide services such as Family LawLINE and websites). From this page, you can continue to refine your search to find exactly what you need.

Intake in Northwest BC

Challenges are many for intake workers in Northwest BC. Our Regional Centre in Terrace and satellite office in Prince Rupert face the task of finding lawyers for clients from Haida Gwaii to Burns Lake — and all the places in between. There are numerous isolated villages on our coast, so there are always challenges to complete intake applications and find local lawyers to represent clients. The local Bar is small. To meet the needs, we often need to pay lawyers to travel from another community to represent clients.

Our intake workers appoint family and criminal duty counsel for courts in Prince Rupert, Terrace, Smithers, Kitimat, Houston, and New Aiyansh. There are days that we are unable to find duty counsel in those communities. If someone is in custody, we need to find a lawyer who might be available to provide duty counsel over the phone from another community. Some mornings, we spend a great deal of time on the phone to find duty counsel.

Our staff lawyers and intake workers travel to New Aiyansh every second month and to Kitimat once a month to be duty counsel and take legal aid applications from clients. In the winter months, weather and road conditions can hamper travel to these areas.

The major challenges our clients face in applying for legal aid are travelling to our offices from the outlying villages and trying to find a telephone and fax machine to get their information to us. Some clients may have problems getting to our office and to court due to financial constraints. At times, our fall and winter weather make it very difficult to travel by road, boat, and seaplane.

Intake in the north is a struggle at times but it is rewarding to know that we are helping people access legal aid services. Is it all worth it? … Yes.

My life as an LSS intake worker

As an intake legal assistant, I interview clients who apply for legal aid. I do this in person; that is, when clients apply in person at our walk-in clinic in the Vancouver Regional Centre office, at the criminal, youth, and family courthouses, or over a public telephone line called the Call Centre where clients call in from across the province.

A typical day

I had a young mom who came in with her two-year-old son and a family advocate. I gave the child some paper and coloured markers to draw with, to keep him occupied while I spoke to his mom. But the child was not interested in colouring. He started to misbehave and opened the door and ran down the hallway, disturbing the other intake workers who were on the phone or interviewing clients. Not only did he run down the hallway, but he was screaming in the process. I asked the mother to go and get him, which she did quickly. When I was finally able to continue with the interview, her son continued to fuss and scream — even though his mother was now holding him. He got so loud that during the interview, a couple of my colleagues brought the child a ball and some stickers to keep him occupied.  Thankfully, he found the stickers and ball amusing and played while I continued the remainder of the interview.

The mom’s family issue was eligible for a legal aid referral to a lawyer. The lesson I learned that day was to have toys for very young children in my office to keep them occupied while their parents are busy.

My next client had an immigration matter. He was a refugee claimant from Hungary and applied for help with a Personal Information Form. The man had suffered persecution in his country — he was known, or referred to, as a gypsy. He did not speak English so I had to get an interpreter through CanTalk, a language translation company that LSS uses. When we got through the interview, the client was clearly feeling better than when he first came in, and he left smiling — when he first walked into my office, he looked timid, sad, and intimidated.

When newcomers arrive in Canada, some may feel unwelcome or insecure because they don’t know English or for other reasons.

It really makes my day when I can make someone feel like they are being valued and heard. I feel like I’ve done my job when they leave with a warm handshake and a smile on their face.

Financial eligibility guidelines for legal aid (advice and representation) going up September 1, 2011

Effective Thursday, September 1, more people with low incomes in BC may qualify for legal aid (advice or representation). LSS is improving its financial eligibility guidelines for legal advice and representation services with a 2.4% cost of living increase. This will ensure that people don’t lose access to legal aid because of inflation. See Do I qualify for legal representation? and Do I qualify for legal advice? on the LSS website on or after September 1 to find the new household income guidelines.

Note that legal information continues to be available for free to all British Columbians.

More about community partners: Legal Services Society expands information network

The Legal Services Society, BC’s legal aid provider, has now partnered with service providers in 24 locations around BC where people can get free legal information (see our April 18 blog entry, Seeking community partnerships to help improve access to legal aid services for more about this initiative).

The 24 new community partners will distribute public legal education and information materials, refer people to legal resources, and work with local communities to improve awareness of legal aid.

These new locations will enhance the existing services of LSS’s 31 local agents who take legal aid applications and provide legal information at more than 50 locations, including private legal offices, community agencies, and courthouses across the province.

In addition, five LSS local agents are expanding their services to Aboriginal communities around BC.

Local agents in Kamloops, Salmon Arm, Victoria, North Vancouver, and Duncan are now travelling to surrounding Aboriginal bands in their areas, reaching more individuals who are unable to access legal services.