February 24th, 2008

Jenn McGinn Calls on Government to Keep Legal Aid Services Open

It’s my pleasure to rise in the House today to discuss an issue of great concern not only to the residents of Vancouver-Fairview but to all residents of Vancouver and beyond. That’s the issue of the lack of access to legal aid services in our province.

Access to legal aid, especially as it relates to family law and poverty law, continues to be underfunded by this government. Legal Services Society, the non-profit organization which provides legal aid services to low-income people in B.C., has recently announced that at a time when the demand for legal aid services is on the rise, it’s being forced to cut 38 jobs over the next six months, including lawyers and support staff. In fact, the Family Law Clinic in Vancouver is slated to close effective April 30 of this year.

At the end of November 2008 referrals for emergency family law services were up over 21 percent from the previous year and criminal referrals by 5 percent. Immigration and refugee referrals were up by an astonishing 76 percent over the previous fiscal year. According to the Legal Services Society, these increases are expected to continue in 2009-2010.

Coincidentally, these numbers correspond with the increase in the legal advocacy program through Battered Women’s Support Services. This non-profit agency provides support services to over 8,000 women a year who are survivors of domestic violence. In fact, in the last year alone BWSS saw an increase of 36 percent in demand for their services across the board.

We all know there is a correlation in the rise of family violence and a downturn in the economy, and we all know that we’re facing some very serious economic times right now. So it would equate that these services are needed now more than ever. The cuts to legal aid services will have a profoundly devastating impact on some of our most vulnerable citizens, including women who are experiencing family violence, aboriginal women, women of colour and other low-income people.

These cuts are taking place at a time when Canada is already being criticized for its failure to meet its international obligation to ensure that women have equal access to the justice system. The 2008 UN report on Canada’s implementation on the convention on the elimination of discrimination against women drew special attention to the negative effect that cuts to legal aid have had on British Columbian women.

I’ll quote from the report: “The committee is concerned at reports that financial support for civil legal aid has diminished and that access to it has become increasingly restricted, in particular in British Columbia, consequently denying low-income women access to legal representation and legal services.”

The committee also notes with concern the fact that the state party’s court challenges program, which facilitated women’s access to procedures to review alleged violations of their right to equality, was cancelled. It regrets the absence of concrete reasons in the budget review, an assessment that led to that cancellation.

Legal advocacy organizations state that there is a family law crisis in this province. There are simply not enough lawyers that are willing to take on family and child protection cases.

The closure of the Family Law Clinic in Vancouver and the cuts to legal aid will result in more people having to represent themselves at court. This is especially problematic for women who are survivors of violence and even more so for many immigrant and refugee women who lack English language skills and are faced with a judicial system that is foreign to them.

Pivot Legal Society and West Coast Legal Education and Action Fund are currently circulating a petition to restore legal aid funding. In their on-line petition several people have commented on the imperative to ensure legal services are available to those in need. I’ll share a couple of those comments.

“It is appalling to realize what little value the provincial and federal governments put on the lives of women and children. Legal aid is absolutely essential to ensure that women’s rights are upheld and justice is reached where it’s needed, especially in the case of women who are already marginalized by the system. Making cuts to legal services for women is putting a large number of people in danger and should not be taken lightly. To have access to defending our rights is a basic human right and should in no way be denied to anyone, especially women who are systematically more vulnerable. We need not only to reverse the current cuts, but we need to strive to create a system that looks out for the welfare of our women and children.”

Another respondent notes:
“I am deeply concerned about cuts to legal aid. Indigenous people are already vastly overrepresented in the justice system and are highly criminalized. Cuts to legal aid will only perpetuate this further. I am also concerned about how these cuts will negatively impact refugee claimants, women involved in the child welfare system and those who commit crimes of poverty. These cuts will have a devastating impact on those who are already most vulnerable. We need more legal aid, not less.”

Constitutional rights for all Canadians were promised in 1982 by the Trudeau government. Since 1982 years of jurisprudence have interpreted the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and what our rights truly are. Section 15(1) of the Charter states: “Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to equal protection 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.”

While Charter rights guarantee that every individual is equal before and under the law, for many battered women in British Columbia these rights are not being recognized and exercised. While it’s not expressly said in any legislation, “Do not give women equal rights in the area of family law and legal aid,” governmental policies have the effect of making family law and legal aid inaccessible and unequal for women in British Columbia.

Mark Benton, executive director of Legal Services Society, stated that in B.C. we had one of the strongest, most broad-ranging services, which really addressed people’s needs substantially, ten years ago. These days it’s much more restricted, much more focused on trying to get the best results we can with the resources available.

The Attorney General has said that he recognizes that legal aid is an essential component of the justice system, but he just seems to sit back and let these cuts to the Legal Services Society happen. “I am a strong proponent of legal aid. It is an essential component of our justice system and has an essential role to play in maintaining and enhancing access to justice.”

I can only hope that he means what he says and steps up to show commitment to this vital community service.

Contact: Jenn McGinn Constituency Office
Phone: 604-660-7061