A work-to-rule job action by Legal Services Society (LSS) staff lawyers launched today should not affect clients of the Smithers Parents Legal Centre according to a labour relations officer with the union that represents them.
“We’re really trying to minimize harm to the community,” said Sam Montgomery with the Professional Employees Association (PEA). “Our members are dedicated public servants and there’s a reason they do this work. They’re committed to providing access to justice and, in fact, it’s our members who are doing that important work of going out to the most rural parts of your community and providing these wraparound legal services and they will still continue to do that, we’re really targeting the employer and putting pressure on them to come back to the table.”
There are 26 LSS staff lawyers in B.C., two of whom work in Smithers. A press release issued yesterday stated the job action would involve their members not performing administrative duties such as responding to emails from management and attending staff meetings.
At issue is wage inequality with other publicly paid lawyers in the province.
The PEA release states their lawyers earn 30 per cent less than their Crown counsel colleagues and significantly less than independent Legal Aid contract lawyers, who received a 25 per cent tariff increase Oct. 30.
“It’s partly a historical inequity, this has gone back for years of underfunding to Legal Aid and legal services in B.C.,” Montgomery said. “B.C. currently ranks 10th in the country for Legal Aid funding and our members have been at the front lines of those cuts.”
B.C. Attorney General David Eby acknowledged as much when he announced the tariff increase.
“It is embarrassing how poorly previous governments have treated the lawyers who help refugees, as well as those who are poor, marginalized and often face serious mental health and addiction challenges,” Eby said.
The tariff increase will see hourly rates rise to between $105 per hour (for first to fourth year lawyers) and $115 (for lawyers with 10 years or more of practice). The Province estimates it will cost approximately $20 million annually.
Montgomery said PEA was pleased with that announcement.
“That was a welcome and necessary increase for those 1,000 members, but our folks who do these wraparound services have been left out of the equation and we’re saying that’s not fair,” she said.
Nevertheless the union is optimistic they have a potential ally in Eby.
“He comes out of the Legal Aid community and of all people he would understand the need to improve access to justice,” Montgomery said.
In an emailed statement to The Interior News, a spokesperson for the Ministry of the Attorney General said the Province is open to negotiation.
“We value the critical work PEA staff lawyers do ensuring that British Columbians can access legal supports,” it stated.
“Right now, government has the most generous bargaining mandate in over a decade.
“We respect free and fair collective bargaining. We encourage both parties to continue discussions at the bargaining table—that’s how challenges like this get resolved.”
Nevertheless, the ministry said the independent Legal Aid lawyers are a separate and distinct case from the LSS staff lawyers.
“Unlike the Association of Legal Aid Lawyers (ALL), PEA staff lawyers have received total compensation increases that are similar to other public sector unions over the past 13 years,” the statement read.
“Tariff rates for ALL lawyers have only been increased once since 1991, and that adjustment occurred 13 years ago – back in 2006.
“So the tariff increase is not out of step with what the general compensation increases we’ve seen elsewhere across the broader B.C. public sector over this same general time period.”
But Montgomery said there is another issue at stake.
“It’s also an issue of wage equity; our members are predominantly women and Indigenous and make over a third less than their counterparts in Crown counsel,” she said.
She noted the job action would employ an incremental and escalating strategy, but would not say if or when it might start affecting the actual services PEA members provide if an agreement is not reached.
“Our members are committed to following their professional obligations under the law and are committed to meeting the clients and cases, but obviously we need to keep the pressure on the employer to come back to the bargaining table with a fair deal,” she said.