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COVID hurts lower-income legal help availability: survey

Legal problems can be “a real drag on the economy”

The COVID-19 pandemic has negatively affected the ability of lower income people to obtain legal assistance, a new survey has found.

The Everyday Legal Needs 2020 Survey, usually done for Legal Aid BC (LABC) every five years, was done in 2020 due to the pandemic. What it found was 36% of the 1,207 people surveyed reported COVID-19 had affected their legal problems.

“I thought COVID would have played a much larger role,” said researcher Mary Bacica. “It certainly has had an impact. Legal problems are still happening but they are getting resolved. COVID isn’t making it any easier.”

The survey had been done previously in 2013 and 2018.

The survey found 83% of those surveyed had experienced at least one of 13 primary types of legal issues in the past three years, up from 76% in 2018.

It found the top five issues were around consumer, employment, financial or debt, housing or land and discrimination issues. It further reported that those problems had led to emotional or physical health, financial, employment and safety, security or violence issues.

The least affected legal issues involved included police incidents and legal action or immigration problems. However, those numbers had increased since 2018.

Some 51% reported consumer problems in the past three years, a rise of 8%, with 19% saying COVID-19 had made problems accessing help worse.

About 38% reported employment legal problem. Thirty-five per cent said the problem was a direct result of COVID-19 and 23% said the problem was made worse by the pandemic.

About 34% experienced a money or debt problem, up two percentage points. Twenty seven percent said the problem was a direct result of COVID-19 and 30% said the pandemic had worsened the situation.

Thirty four per cent reported a housing or land problem, up two percentage points. Some 12% said the problem was a direct result of COVID-19 and 13% said the crisis made things worse.

Of respondents, 33% experienced discrimination, up nine percentage points. One in 10 said the problem was a direct result of COVID-19 and 19% said the pandemic made things worse.

In each case, those taking action did so first on their own and then sought non-legal assistance before seeking legal help.

Those who did not seek legal help reported thinking it would cost too much, be too stressful or that nothing could be done.

Of those who did seek help, they reported a need for someone to explain options and help fill out forms, more and better information availability, someone to deal with the other party, better availability of legal services during the pandemic and the need for a lawyer.

LABC CEO Mark Benton said, “It is valuable to hear from people outside the justice system about experiences with the system.”

It’s information, he said, that could cause needed changes to create a more efficient and responsive system.

“A lot more research is warranted,” he said, in order to increase confidence that the system can help resolve issues.

Failing to deal with people’s legal problems can ultimately be “a real drag on the economy,” Benton said.

Caroline Nevin, CEO of Courthouse Libraries B.C., said the lack of access to public computers during the pandemic has been a concern for people being able to access assistance.

Indeed, asked Benton, are people unable to afford technology being left behind?

He said some are reluctant to share intimate life details and legal issues online with public institutions. And, he said, doing so at a public computer brings the risk of someone looking over one’s shoulder.

“Ministry staff have been made aware of the Everyday Legal Needs 2020 Survey prepared for Legal Aid BC, and we will review the material and outcomes. The ministry will take this survey into consideration in any future review of legal aid policy,” the Ministry of Attorney General said in a statement to Glacier Media.

It said Victoria has increased LABC funding by $26 million over three years.

The ministry said funding was allocated via the Law Foundation of B.C. to create legal clinics in communities throughout the province, further helping people access the legal services they need. Those clinics are staffed by lawyers and legal staff specializing in poverty law-related issues.

Some focus on specific issues, providing advice on matters related to disability law, housing law and immigration law,” the statement said. “Each clinic provides legal advice and representation at no cost to their clients.”