On Thursday, April 14, West Coast LEAF’s Executive Director, Kasari Govender, and Director of Litigation, Raji Mangat, appeared before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights (Justice Committee) to tell lawmakers about the challenges facing women in accessing fair and just outcomes through the legal system in Canada.

The Justice Committee has undertaken a study of Access to the Justice System, and is considering issues such as access to legal aid, the resurrection of the Court Challenges Program, delays in the justice system, and the Minister of Justice’s obligation to ensure that new legislation upholds constitutionally protected rights and freedoms. West Coast LEAF was invited to share with the Justice Committee our expert perspectives on these important issues and their impacts on women’s access to justice. Equal access to our justice system is a necessary precondition for a society in which women are full participants in all social, economic, and political activities.

West Coast LEAF’s submissions focused on the critical need for the federal government to sustain and increase funding of civil legal aid. Legal aid is an area of shared federal-provincial responsibility. Yet, federal contributions to legal aid are at an all-time low, and there is no accountability mechanism to ensure that the provinces use federal funds effectively. This leaves crucial areas of law woefully underfunded, such as family law and immigration, areas which disproportionately and differently impact women. Furthermore, legal aid funding across the country is inconsistent, so that access to justice varies dramatically depending on where you live.

Read more about West Coast LEAF’s long-standing work on access to justice and the right to legal aid here.

West Coast LEAF also called for a revamped Court Challenges Program (CCP). The CCP provided funding for individuals and groups seeking to challenge federal government action on the basis of linguistic or equality rights. The program was formed and eliminated twice over and was most recently cancelled in 2006. The need for government funding of systemic equality challenges cannot be overstated. Justice for one cannot be justice for all until we address the inequalities that permeate society. West Coast LEAF wants an adequately supported CPP expanded to fund challenges to government action at the provincial and federal levels. The equality rights branch of the program should focus on challenges brought under sections 15 and 28 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (which sets out equality rights) and under section 35(4) of the Constitution Act, 1982 (which recognizes Indigenous rights).

With funding from the former Court Challenges Program, West Coast LEAF developed its position on polygamy, which was successfully argued during the Polygamy Reference. Read more about our work on that case here.

A link to audio/video of the hearing can be accessed on the Committee’s homepage here.