location: news

April 11, 2002


Earlier this year, the B.C. Attorney General announced massive cuts to the legal aid budget, reducing it by 40%. The cuts run deepest in the area of poverty law, and also place in jeopardy the future of Prisoners' Legal Services, which, for over 20 years, has been the principal vehicle for providing advice and representation for prisoners in the Pacific region. The tireless work of PLS's staff punctuate many of the case studies in Justice behind the Walls.

On a daily basis PLS staff (a lawyer, three paralegals and four intake workers) field calls from prisoners on disciplinary charges, segregation, involuntary transfers, visits, detention referrals, grievances and parole problems. In many cases prisoners are helped to prepare their own defences, rebuttals or grievance forms; in others (where the case is complex or the prisoner lacks the literacy skills necessary) PLS staff conduct the defence or prepare the documents, leaving a small number of cases that are referred to members of the private bar. The PLS staff lawyer, in addition to supervising the para-legals, also takes on test cases raising important legal issues of correctional law. Over the course of its 20 year history PLS has played a significant role, not only in advancing the borders of correctional law, but also in providing an avenue of peaceful recourse for prisoners. Officials in the Correctional Service of Canada, who remember the pre-PLS years of hostage-takings, acknowedge the role of PLS staff in providing a peaceful alternative to violent protest.

The cuts to legal aid come less than three years after the Supreme Court of Canada, in the Winters case (discussed in Sector 3, Chapter 4), held that prisoners facing serious disciplinary charges, for which they could be sent to segregation, were entitled to legal services under the B.C. Legal Services Society Act. One of the arguments presented to the Supreme Court in support of this result was that lawyers and legal services have a critical role to play in ensuring the Rule of Law runs behind prison walls. The B.C. Legal Services Society's response in 1999 was to expand the limited resources of PLS to fulfill the Society's legal responsibilities; in 2002 the B.C Government's response is to amend the Legal Services Society Act to pave the way for the dismantling of legal aid to those whose human rights are the most vulnerable to abuse.

Michael Jackson