BWSS Response to the Expansion of Legal Aid in BC

Last week, there was a significant development in legal aid for survivors of intimate partner violence who are navigating the family law system. The Government of BC announced an expansion of legal aid, with an infusion of $29 million towards family law services for survivors of violence in intimate relationships. 

The new tier of services which consists of a new clinic model is long overdue, and results from a charter challenge launched in 2017 by three plaintiffs; two individual plaintiffs, Nicole Bell and a woman known as AD, and an organization plaintiff, the Centre for Family Equity (then known as the Single Mothers’ Alliance) which upheld public interest standing in the case as a member-based organization of low-income mothers impacted by gender-based violence. The plaintiffs were represented by a large and mainly pro bono team led by West Coast LEAF. A constitutional challenge is when someone argues that a law or government action violates the rules in the Constitution. This case argued that BC’s legal aid system violates women’s constitutionally protected rights to equality, life, and security of the person, as well as access to justice, by increasing their risk of exposure to violence. Nicole Bell and AD had to withdraw from the charter challenge. The settlement agreement was reached with the Attorney General and Legal Aid BC by the sole remaining plaintiff, the Centre for Family Equity.

For background, in 2002, the BC provincial government cut legal aid funding for family law by 60%, disenfranchising women, single mothers, and other survivors of intimate partner violence. These funding cuts and policy changes had a profoundly negative impact on women survivors of violence. Consequently, survivors of intimate partner violence were compelled to navigate the legal system as an additional barrier to escaping an abusive partner, protecting their children, and achieving a just result in their family cases. 

What We See in Our Frontline Legal Advocacy

There is a troubling belief that once an abusive relationship has ended, so has the abuse. Through our work, we know that women reporting their experiences of intimate partner or domestic violence in family court all too often are not believed by system players, including police, lawyers, court service personnel, and judges. Even if they are believed, the extent of the violence and its impact is often minimized. Furthermore, they are often told that the violence they experienced had nothing to do with the children or parenting. All too often, if there is a recognition of the violence, the system will tell survivors, in both subtle and overt ways, that it is their responsibility to “move on,” “get over it,” put the relationship “behind them,” and focus on “the best interest of the children,” co-parenting with their abusive ex-partner. Unfortunately, we have seen that this prioritization of preserving a relationship with a father over safety concerns for the mother and children can have devastating consequences, including the killing of children and women. It is deeply troubling how frequently legal services personnel advise the survivors we work with not to bring up their experiences of violence. 

All areas of the legal system tend to place the bulk of the responsibility on the ‘non-offending’ parent, often the mother. This means women survivors of relationship violence feel pressured to center the system and the abusive partner in order to avoid being perceived as ‘vindictive,’ selfish, or contributing to ‘parental alienation’. 

What’s in the Settlement Agreement?

As a result of this constitutional challenge, the settlement agreement with the province of BC and Legal Aid BC will establish the first government-funded family law legal aid clinics since 2009. These clinics will employ full-time, salaried lawyers with the primary responsibility of handling cases approved for legal aid and for those specifically impacted by family violence. This specialization could significantly enhance knowledge and expertise within the system regarding issues of family violence. It’s important to note that the clinics won’t eliminate the current certification model for legal aid but rather serve as another key component of available legal aid coverage for survivors.

In terms of available legal aid coverage for lawyers, we were very encouraged to see that the settlement agreement included an increase in the maximum hours available for lawyers, from 35 hours of preparation to a maximum of 60 hours. Much of our work at BWSS has involved filling the gaps created by the lack of legal aid coverage, which has been one of the most depressing parts for the survivors we work with. This single change in legal aid is remarkable because it will also help address the systemic barriers preventing lawyers from taking on family law cases in their practice and from having to refuse family law legal aid cases due to the significant amount of unpaid labor these cases would require. It is our hope that the increase in hours will attract more lawyers to take on legal aid cases. The increased 25 hours will be available to all new Legal Aid BC clients who qualify as of April 1st, 2024. 

For Survivors Who Access BWSS

We are truly encouraged by this advancement and what it could mean for the survivors we exist to serve. Approximately 80% of survivors accessing BWSS identify at least one legal issue where they require information in their family law cases, which often intersects with other areas of law – criminal, immigration, and child welfare law. These cases are intensified by an abusive partner who seeks to use the legal system to maintain domination and control. Unfortunately, the family justice system has struggled to recognize the impact of intimate partner violence in family law, often viewing the situation through a patriarchal lens, which further intensifies the experience for survivors. 

BWSS provides frontline legal advocacy to help survivors navigate the Canadian legal system, filling the gaps where legal aid is lacking through representation, legal aid advocacy, workshops and clinics, public legal education, and training for lawyers, along with legal research. As we enter our 45th year, we remain committed to supporting survivors and holding institutions accountable. We strive to promote racial and gender justice, including for immigrant/refugee survivors with precarious immigration status where immigration law intersects, for Indigenous survivors navigating child welfare and all survivors who are navigating the criminal legal system and how all these areas of law intersect with family law. 

Big congratulations to the plaintiff and its members through BC, who persevered through an eight-year lawsuit and survived multiple attacks on their public interest standing as a grassroots organization of survivors, their legal team led by West Coast LEAF, and all who have lent their voice and effort to making this moment happen. We are truly very grateful for all the mothers and women who continue to stand in their power and use their voice through the family justice system. The settlement is an important step in the struggle for access to justice for survivors of intimate partner violence in BC. We are celebrating this moment and looking forward to furthering the impact of this announcement and funding.