British Columbia’s Legal Aid System is Broken

Battered Women’s Support Services (BWSS) works every single day with women who are in need of real access to family law legal aid. Based on our direct experience, we know women in B.C. are facing a provincial government that simply does not care about equal access to legal representation for women.

While this may seem like a harsh assessment, it surely is not.

Since the early 1990’s when cuts to legal aid were first implemented, women’s groups, family law lawyers, academics and others have urged provincial governments to increase funding to family law legal aid.  In response, successive provincial governments, including the current and past provincial governments, have consistently cut deeper and deeper.

We are now at the point where nothing less than a full on, top to bottom reform of our irretrievably broken legal aid system is required.

In 2002, the province slashed 40% from the funding for the Legal Services Society (LSS), the agency charged with providing legal aid services to British Columbians.  As a result of the cut, new policies were introduced.

  • Family law legal aid is now available only in emergency situations. This means a person must be in economic need and fear for her own or her children’s safety, or fear their spouse may flee the province with the children.

 

  • Even in these cases, access is limited to a maximum of eight hours – literally, almost nothing. And, to access that eight hours of legal representation, a person must already have obtained a restraining order or be seeking a change in a custody agreement.

Taken together, these funding cuts and policy changes have virtually slammed the door shut on women seeking family law legal aid. That’s because most low-income women deal with a level of marginalization so deep that they are unlikely to report violence, and this is particularly true for Aboriginal women and Immigrant women. Left with no access to legal aid, many low-income women, including those seeking to leave violent relationships, are increasingly forced to go it alone.

While a woman may start with a lawyer, she soon finds the lawyer’s fees beyond her financial resources.  She must appear in court countless times, backed only by her wits and the research she has managed to undertake with either little support, or entirely on their own. Often she has to navigate two or three entirely different areas of law including family and child custody law, child protection law, immigration law and even the Indian Act. She may have a job or even two jobs, but she knows her bosses will soon tire of giving her time off for court dates.  All the while, amidst her exhaustion, she knows she would fare better with a lawyer. All the while, she sees her former partner in court and, far more often that not, he has the money to pay a lawyer.

Reform aimed at bringing legal aid access to the community level

Two years ago, BWSS received The Law Foundation of BC funding which is allowing us to research the impacts on women of the current family law legal aid system and offer women comprehensive family law legal information through our website: www.bwss.org 

We continue working to determine how family law case outcomes differ when women have — or do not have — access to legal representation and to uncover other barriers to women’s access to justice. We are indentifying how abusers are exploiting legal avenues to ensure the ongoing oppression of women. As important, we continue to study the impacts legal aid cuts and related policy changes are having on BC’s Immigrant and Aboriginal women.

Today, BWSS is issuing a public call for reforms that violence against women services have access to a stream of funding to provide family law legal aid. We want to be able to hire lawyers to represent women in court backed by legal advocates who would provide legal information and support. At the same time, we maintain our demand that government abolish the requirement that violence must be present before women can access family law legal aid and we urgently want funding restored for family, poverty and immigration law.

Building a Charter challenge ViolenceAgainstWomen&TheLaw

BWSS is also actively building our intention to launch a Charter challenge on the BC government’s failed family law legal aid program and policies. Under Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Section 15 expressly says that women are entitled to the ‘equal protection of the law.’

In our democracy, our governments are obliged to ensure that all people have access to the legal system. A non-discriminatory legal aid system ensures those unable to afford a lawyer are not at a disadvantage in their search for justice and protection.  In our view, anything less is a fundamental violation of the principles of equality before the law and due process.

BWSS intends to do absolutely everything we can to hold the provincial government to account on these essential human rights. Working with our partners and in coalitions, we believe we will build a truly equal, accessible and effective legal aid system for our province.

Join BWSS and West Coast Legal Education and Action Fund for women in calling upon the Attorney General of British Columbia for a reformed legal aid system that is equal, accessible and respectful of the human dignity of all persons. Sign the 2010 Access to Justice – Reform Legal Aid in BC Petition and encourage the Attorney General of British Columbia to adopt these recommendations:

Legal aid in BC should be a rights-based system. A rights-based system would recognize that there is a human right to access justice and courts with adequate representation in all matters where human dignity is at stake.

Mixed-model delivery. A mixed model of delivery includes public legal services delivered through legal aid clinics, private lawyers paid through the tariff system and staff lawyers in community organizations.  A mixed model of delivery can meet the diverse needs of a diverse population, foster co-operation with a range of professionals both in and outside the justice system, create accessible public legal services through storefront clinics and interdisciplinary community organizations, and free up resources for test case litigation.

Independence from government. Ultimately, the future of legal aid in BC demands a central organization with public accountability through a Board of Directors and independence from government.

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