We have some major news in the fight to improve women’s access to justice in BC.

Canada and BC have a world-class justice system and progressive family laws, but if you can’t afford a lawyer, those legal protections are meaningless. The law is only as good as your ability to enforce it, and the drastic cuts to legal aid over the last 15 years have left enforcement out of reach for most British Columbians, particularly women.

Confronting this reality head on, West Coast LEAF and the BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre today announced a constitutional challenge against the Province of BC and the Legal Services Society for their failure to provide adequate family law legal aid to women fleeing violent relationships.

The case is being brought on behalf of Single Mothers’ Alliance BC and two individual women whose safety, well-being, and relationships with their children have been threatened by the severe lack of legal aid services available to them in their family law disputes.

The case alleges that the province has a constitutional responsibility to provide access to the justice system for women fleeing violent relationships or dealing with ongoing situations of abuse from ex-spouses. As it is now, the legal aid scheme discriminates against women and children and violates their rights by putting them at further risk of violence and intense stress.

Between 2002 and 2005 alone, legal aid services in family law were cut by 60%. Legal aid has been drastically and chronically underfunded in the province and is now almost exclusively available to extremely low income people fleeing violent relationships. Even in those life-threatening situations, there are highly restrictive caps on the hours of legal service provided.

Consider this: When a single person working full time for minimum wage does not qualify for legal aid because their income is deemed “too high,” we know something is deeply wrong with our system.

Action to fix this systemic failure is way past due, and it is time for the government to explain themselves in court.

The impacts of underfunding are stark. Not having access to legal aid can mean having to cross examine an abusive former spouse on the stand – or having to give up your legal rights and the rights of your children because you don’t have a lawyer to represent you. And, since women are statistically lower income earners and more likely to experience spousal violence than men, many women and their children are left particularly vulnerable as they try to navigate the justice system alone.

West Coast LEAF has advocated for greater access to legal aid for well over a decade, conducting research and advocacy , including consultations with hundreds of service providers and women across the province who detailed their struggles to get justice in their family law disputes. In 2016, we partnered with UBC’s Allard School of Law to open Rise Women’s Legal Centre, providing free and low-cost legal services to women. Unfortunately, an undeniable fact remains: BC women are getting the very short end of the stick.

We all should care about this grave injustice to women in BC. The costs to the justice system of accommodating unrepresented litigants, and the costs to the state in providing health care, housing and social assistance to those with unresolved family law problems, are high – the human costs to women and children are much higher. The chronic underfunding of legal aid for over a decade has caused harm to many British Columbian families.

The case, Single Mothers’ Alliance of BC Society et al. v. HMTQ in right of the Province of B.C. et al., is expected to be heard by the Supreme Court of British Columbia in 2018.  For more information about the case or to support this challenge to injustice for women, visit our website.