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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.

My day in BC’s First Nations Court

Picture courtesy of Courthouse Libraries BC

A few months ago I had the opportunity to sit in on a session at BC’s First Nations Court (FNC). It was an experience I won’t soon forget.

Despite working for legal aid for a while now, I don’t have much experience with courtrooms. I realize it’s not like Law and Order in real life, but that doesn’t stop me from hearing the theme song whenever I pass by the courthouse. So, the FNC was a splash of cold (refreshing!) water.

The first thing you notice when you enter the room is that it’s not your traditional court set up. Instead of facing off against each other, the judge, Crown counsel, defendant, and others sit around a horseshoe-shaped conference table. This alternate setting is representative of the court as a whole.

FNC can be used by anyone who self-identifies as Aboriginal — status or non-status, First Nations, Metis, or Inuit, living on or off reserve — and who has or will plead guilty to, or has been found guilty of, a crime. The court is there only for sentencing and follow-up. It takes a more holistic and restorative approach to justice, one that respects and values Aboriginal culture and supports Aboriginal communities. (Editor’s note: FNC may also hear cases related to child protection in some circumstances.)

This means the judge, Crown counsel, community members, and family work with the individual and the lawyer to find a healing plan — a plan to address the root causes of the crime and help the accused, the community, and the victim move on. Succeeding as a result of a healing plan is not a sure thing, however. You have to show real commitment to improving yourself and taking part in the program to take advantage of FNC.

For example, one of the cases I saw was a young man who had pleaded guilty to assaulting his step-father. He explained that his step-father had been abusive to him and his mother in the past. One night, after an argument, he assaulted his step-father. As he explained what had happened, he displayed genuine regret over his actions. He then went on to talk about how he was attending anger management sessions.

After he spoke, his mother told everyone about his childhood and her relationship with the step-father. It was powerful to watch; at one point, she began to cry, which caused her son to cry. I don’t think there was a single person in the room who didn’t experience some chest-tightening.

After she had spoken, the rest of the participants were given a chance to speak. At every session of the court, a council of elders also attends to give support. A few of the elders stood up to offer information on different programs that they thought might help him deal with his issues.

This session wasn’t the end for him, however. The judge ordered that he come back in a month to report on his progress and finalize his healing plan. I’m pretty sure that I’ll be back too.

You can find more information on First Nations Court, as well as about Aboriginal legal issues and services, by visiting www.legalaid.bc.ca/aboriginal.

Nate Prosser is the online outreach coordinator at LSS.

Making Justice Work — report on legal aid and justice system reform

In February 2012, the Province announced an initiative to address challenges facing British Columbia’s justice system and to identify actions to give British Columbians more timely and effective justice services.

As part of this initiative, the Attorney General asked the Legal Services Society for advice on reforms to legal aid and to the larger justice system that could reduce costs so that savings can be reallocated to legal aid.

LSS’ report, Making Justice Work: Improving Access and Outcomes for British Columbians, is now available on the LSS website.

The report outlines LSS’ vision for a justice system that focuses on outcomes that benefit all justice system stakeholders and users. The proposals include:

  • expansion of criminal and family duty counsel;
  • greater use of problem-solving courts such as domestic violence courts;
  • more community-based advice services coupled with assistance for related, non-family legal problems; and
  • increased service for Aboriginal peoples.

In preparing our recommendations, LSS consulted with LSS local agents, family duty counsel, the criminal and family tariff advisory committees, other Canadian legal aid plans, and numerous BC lawyers.

Please have a look at LSS’ advice to the Attorney General, as it is the most recent documentation of the direction LSS is headed.

— Mark Benton, QC, Executive Director, Legal Services Society

How accessible are legal aid publications?

When we create our publications, we always try to write them in the plainest possible language and design them to be as accessible as possible. That doesn’t mean we always succeed, though. Last year, we commissioned some consultants to take a look at our materials and tell us how we’re doing and where we can improve.

John Simpson, our Manager of Community and Publishing Services, explains what our accessibility initiative report is and why we commissioned it.

In this second video, John talks about the results of the report and the impact they’ll have on our print and online materials in future.

If you’re interested in reading the report, you can find it here.

BC launches a new justice reform website

As part of the recently announced BC Justice Reform Initiative, the BC government has launched a new website — www.bcjusticereform.ca.

The site provides a space for the public, and stakeholders, to voice their opinions and provide input about how BC’s justice system can become more efficient, transparent, and accessible. The public can participate in the dialogue through the site’s blog, social media updates, and through regular surveys.

Feedback from the site will be used by Geoffrey Cowper, QC, as he leads the Justice Reform Initiative in looking for ways to deal with the challenges facing the BC’s justice system.

You can also connect with the BC Justice Reform Initiative on Facebook.

Helping people with low incomes stay connected

LSS has partnered with the Community Voicemail project, a service that provides people in need with a local phone number, personal greeting, and means of retrieving voicemail messages. The service offers a weekly update for clients on community events, local services, places where they can get free meals, and more.

Through the project, LSS staff can provide phone numbers and voicemail access to clients who have neither a phone nor a place where messages can be left. The service is currently equipped to handle 604 and 778 area codes, and the long-term goal is to serve all of BC and, eventually, all of Canada.

Facts about community voice mailCoordinated by the Lu’ma Native Housing Society, the project has grown quickly, with over 50 partner groups from health, justice, employment, housing, and women’s services providing numbers to about 900 people. This project has already helped people find housing, receive healthcare, find employment, contact family, and receive social assistance. While the number of LSS clients without phones is declining, seven percent of legal aid applicants have neither a phone nor voicemail, so many of our clients may benefit from this service.

For more information about the Community Voicemail project, read their recent report.

BC also has agencies that offer free or low-cost Internet services that people with low incomes may benefit from. These services include the South Island Community Access Network, which provides computer access to the general public in many locations in the South Vancouver Island region, Victoria Free-Net, a not-for-profit Internet service provider that provides Internet service and facilities at low cost, and the Vancouver Community Network, which provides free services to individuals, community groups, and non-profit organizations.

If you know about other free or low-cost services that could assist people with low incomes, please comment and let us know.