Family justice not family violence

In British Columbia today, many women fleeing abusive relationships are forced to navigate the family law system alone or to give up their legal rights because they cannot access a lawyer. The devastating consequences of inadequate family law legal aid include an increased risk of life-threatening violence against women and children. That’s why West Coast LEAF and BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre (BCPIAC) are going to court to defend women’s right to fair and equal access to the family law system in the aftermath of relationship violence.

About the case

Single Mothers’ Alliance v BC is a constitutional challenge against the Province of BC and the Legal Services Society for failing to provide adequate family law legal aid to women leaving abusive relationships. West Coast LEAF and BCPIAC are providing legal representation to Single Mothers’ Alliance BC and two individual women, Nicole Bell and A.B., whose safety, well-being, and relationships with their children have been jeopardized by a lack of family law legal aid.

The case, launched in April 2017, alleges that BC has a constitutional responsibility under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to ensure access to the justice system for women who are fleeing violent relationships or facing ongoing abuse from ex-spouses. The plaintiffs will argue that BC’s legal aid system discriminates against women and children and violates their rights to life and security of the person by increasing their risk of exposure to violence and intense stress.

The case is expected to be heard by the Supreme Court of British Columbia in 2018.

Case documents:

What legal aid means for women and their families

When women fleeing relationship violence can’t get a lawyer to represent them in their family law dispute, conflict with their abusive ex can be drawn out and intensified. Violence can escalate, endangering them and their children. They may even lose custody of their kids.

This scenario is all too common in BC today. More than a decade ago, legal aid in BC was drastically cut by 40% overall and by 60% for family law, so that today 3 out of every 5 applications for family law legal aid representation are denied. Access to family law legal aid is generally restricted to those who are recognized as needing an immediate interim court order to ensure their own or their children’s safety. Even when women do manage to get help from a family law lawyer through the legal aid system, the time the lawyer can spend preparing for the case is capped at such a low level that many of their legal needs are still likely to go unmet. In addition, the extremely low income requirement for legal aid eligibility excludes a huge number of people who cannot afford a lawyer, including many minimum wage earners.

Single Mothers’ Alliance board member Debbie Henry powerfully articulates what is at stake in this case:

“We have heard loud and clear from women in BC that legal aid – or the lack thereof – has played a significant role in their lives and the lives of their children. Without access to a publicly funded lawyer, many women in poverty are not able to get the adequate representation they need to resolve their complex cases, involving child custody issues and protection orders, and must navigate the system in fear and at risk, often facing their abusers in court alone.”

 

Media

Download our media release, backgrounder or fact sheet to learn more about the case, or watch the video footage of our press conference.

To arrange a media interview, contact Basya Laye, West Coast LEAF’s Director of Development and Engagement at 604-684-8772, ext. 214 or development@westcoastleaf.org.

 

Take action

West Coast LEAF believes that no survivor of violence should be deprived of the legal help necessary to protect their rights and safety and their children’s well-being.

Do you agree? Here are three powerful ways you can join our fight for fairness in BC’s family law legal aid system.

1. Donate to support our work for the human rights of women and children fleeing abuse.

2. Share this image on social media using the #LegalAid4Women hashtag to help us spread the word about the issue! (To download it, right click and select “Save image as…”)

3. Receive updates on this case and our other work by joining our email newsletter. Simply enter your email address at the bottom right of this page where it says “Stay updated.”