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Lawyers plan to boycott legal aid for riot suspects

Accused rioters who face possible jail time and can
Accused rioters who face possible jail time and can't afford a lawyer may be refused legal aid under the latest job action spearheaded by the Trial Lawyers Association of B.C.
— image credit: File

Most B.C. lawyers are expected to refuse to take on accused Stanley Cup rioters as legal aid clients in a new strategy to press the provincial government for more funding.

The Trial Lawyers' Association of B.C. (TLABC) board of governors decided over the weekend to recommend refusal of riot cases under legal aid, a follow-up from their four-month escalating duty counsel strike that ended in April.

"There was quite a great deal of support," TLABC spokesman Bentley Doyle said of the action, but noted the association has no way to enforce a boycott and the province will likely find some lawyers who will take the cases of accused rioters.

"The people involved in the battle for legal aid aren't going to be taking it."

Lawyers in B.C. argue the province severely underfunds legal aid, citing a growing number of people who appear in court unrepresented.

That could happen with accused rioters, Doyle said, or cases could be delayed.

"They have devoted a great deal of legal resources to prosecuting the riot cases," he said. "At the same time we've been calling for legal aid funding to be increased across the board."

Legal aid would generally apply in the case of rioters who can't afford a lawyer and might face jail time.

The boycott only targets new riot cases coming to court, not ones where legal aid lawyers have already been assigned.

Doyle said there have been no overtures from government about increasing legal aid funding.

But he noted an independent review of the criminal justice system is underway, so major changes may be unlikely before review chair Geoffrey Cowper reports back in July.

Crown counsel spokesman Neil MacKenzie said the Criminal Justice Branch has no involvement in the process of how defendants get lawyers, including legal aid.

"It guess that's a decision for them to make," he said of the TLABC's intended boycott. "We're certainly ready and willing to proceed and we're doing so on a daily basis as the ongoing cases continue."

During the legal aid strike, the Legal Services Society of B.C., which administers legal aid with the budget assigned by the province, sent outside lawyers to fill in at courthouses severely affected by the job action.

Legal aid funding has been cut by 27 per cent over the last decade, from $96 million in 2001 to about $67 million.

A public commission into legal aid last year concluded B.C. is failing its most disadvantaged citizens, leaving too many representing themselves and adding to court congestion.

Police on Tuesday announced 19 new charges against seven more suspected rioters from Sidney, Richmond and Port Moody.

Connor Epp, 20, of Maple Ridge, became the 13th rioter to plead guilty so far to a riot-related offence.

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