The Province of BC has a constitutional responsibility to ensure that access to justice is possible for all of its constituents. The Legal Services Society was created to help uphold that constitutional duty. The Single Mothers Alliance B.C., West Coast LEAF and the BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre have launched a constitutional challenge against the Province of BC and the Legal Services Society for their lack of sufficient Family Law Legal Aid to women fleeing abusive male partners which infringes on women’s equal access to justice.
The majority of people who require legal aid for family law services are women and many women who are fleeing violent partner. This means that women have been directly affected to the progressive cuts to Legal Aid since 2002.
The launch of the constitutional challenge is a significant step taken in the effort to hold the province accountable for its progressive cuts to legal aid and other gender discriminatory legal aid criteria. The Single Mothers’ Alliance BC is a non-profit community building, leadership and advocacy organization by single mothers for single mothers in BC. Nicole Bell, who is a single mother and survivor of violence by her ex-male partner and father of her children, is leading the lawsuit against the Ministry of Justice and the Legal Services Society. The differential treatment by Legal Services Society has detrimental effects on women and limits women’s right to access justice.
Under the Charter:
Section 15. (1) Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.
(2) Subsection (1) does not preclude any law, program or activity that has as its object the amelioration of conditions of disadvantaged individuals or groups including those that are disadvantaged because of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.
Based on this, the Province is in violation of the charter because their cuts to legal aid, caps on the hours’ legal aid lawyers have to prepare for Family Law Proceeding, and arbitrary financial eligibility criteria and denial or discontinuance of legal aid to any women who have limited or moderate means discriminates against women who are low-income and jeopardises their right to safety and right to justice under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Battered Women’s Support Services Legal Advocacy Program continues to be vital in supporting women through the family law system. For decades BWSS has supported thousands of women and has seen firsthand the how the prejudicial legal system negatively impacts the lives of women survivors of violence.
For many years, Battered Women’s Support Services has stated that the cuts to Legal Aid are a violation of women’s constitutional rights and has been advocating for women’s rights to legal aid and the need for increases in legal as a basic right for women in having access to justice.
The Legal Advocacy team of staff, interns and volunteer lawyers at BWSS provide legal information, accompaniment to court and legal appointments, we appeal when legal aid has been denied and we provide assistance for documents and affidavits preparation. It cannot be emphasized enough how important access to justice and our Legal Advocacy Program are for women’s long term safety and freedom from violence.
Through accessing our Legal Advocacy Program women are able to leave their abusive relationship, receive more fair custody and access orders increasing the safety for the children, able to have a voice in mediation proceedings and very importantly having access to legal representation in their legal cases.
While this case is happening, BWSS has restructured our Legal Advocacy Program which is now the Legal Services and Advocacy Program and will expand the current matrix of BWSS access to justice to work. Stay tuned for the official announcement very soon.