Terrace residents who wish to avail free or subsidized legal representation for criminal cases will now have to apply to a provincial call centre after Legal Aid BC’s walk-in centre shut its doors.
Citing a decline in walk-in applications, Legal Aid BC cut back its office space in Terrace by shutting down the Regional Centre’s operations which mostly handled criminal cases for vulnerable and marginalized citizens.
Until March 31, Legal Aid BC ran two offices out of the same space in the city – the Parents legal Centre and the Terrace Regional Centre. However, since the new fiscal year began in April 2021, the organization has retained only the Terrace Parent Legal Centre on Kalum St. which mostly deals with child protection cases.
Legal Aid BC – a provincially funded organization– provides free legal representation for an applicant of certain low income brackets, facing criminal charges, mental health and prison issues, immigration problems and child protection matters.
Prior to it shutting down, the Terrace Regional Centre had a staff lawyer who managed some of these legal affairs for their clients.
All applications for legal services are now made via telephone to Legal Aid BC’s provincial call centre and the applicants are referred to criminal lawyers that the organization contracts locally. In Terrace, Legal Aid BC have partnered with 13 lawyers who take criminal legal aid referrals.
“We’re still providing services in Terrace and providing people with criminal lawyers, just like we do everywhere in the province, we just don’t have a staff lawyer doing it anymore,” said Sherry MacLennan, vice president of public legal information and applications for Legal Aid BC.
The decision to retain the Parents Legal Centre in Terrace was a “strategic” one after child protection cases became a priority for Legal Aid BC in 2015 , said MacLennan.
The decline in walk-in applications has been attributed to a “behavioural shift” with more people choosing to opt for phone services rather than come in to the office and ask for a lawyer, said MacLennan.
“That’s part of a decline we’re seeing across the province,” said MacLennan, and added, that it does not necessarily mean that crime has reduced.
According to her, historically 60 per cent of applications were done in person but it has reduced to 40 per cent over the years. At the same time most places began witnessing over 60 per cent applications via call centres.
Last year there were only 176 applications (both walk-in and telephone) in total that came in to the Terrace office, compared to previously recorded applications that were as high as 700 a couple years ago. Historically, Terrace has seen application numbers as high as 1,200.
Out of the 176 applications the regional centre took in 2021 (for the fiscal year ending March 31), 68 of them came in through the call centre.
For the same period in 2020, there were 35 telephone applications for the same period in 202o.
After the office shut, the call centre recorded 34 telephone applications in two months (April 1, 2021 through June 30, 2021),” said MacLennan.
“In terms of criminal law legal issues in Terrace, the top issues are all assault related, either assault, spousal assault or assault causing bodily harm, and failure to comply with probation orders, followed by Motor Vehicle Act offence of driving while suspended,” said MacLennan.