Three women’s advocacy groups are taking the province and Legal Service Society to court, over what advocates and plaintiffs are saying is a failure to provide adequate legal aid to women fleeing violent relationships.
West Coast Leaf and the BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre announced the constitutional challenge Thursday.
The case is being brought on behalf of the Single Mothers’ Alliance BC and two individual women who say their 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,” the group stated.
During a press conference Thursday, Nicole Bell, a B.C. mother of two and one of the plaintiffs, shared her experience using legal aid in the province.
Plaintiff forced to apply for full custody of kids & restraining order against ex who threatened her & kids w/ death but no #LegalAid4Women— West Coast LEAF (@WestCoast_LEAF) April 27, 2017
“I’ve joined this case because I think we can do better,” she said. “We need to do better.”
Bell described an abusive situation a number of woman in B.C. find themselves in. Through a custody battle with her ex-partner, Bell said she couldn’t afford a lawyer and applied for legal aid but wasn’t eligible due to $8,000 she had in assets.
She liquidated her RRSP, and was later approved. The legal battle got messy, and was lengthy, she said. In the end, an agreement was met, just as she was running out of legal aid hours and couldn’t afford more.
A few months later, she received a duty to warn from the RCMP stating her safety was at risk.
She tried to represent herself as she sought a non-expiring protection order but needed a lawyer.
Bell was denied when she applied a second time for legal aid, because she had relied on the program before and her ex-partner was abiding by the previously determined non-contact order.
Although her previous lawyer was able to offer her discounted fees and gained her the non-expiring protection order, Bell said she spent more than an entire university degree’s worth of loans to pay for the legal fees.
To pay back the loans, Bell said she’s had to forgo required therapy for her daughter who has autism and lives off credit cards.
“These legal fees are a necessity for me,” she said, to protect herself and her children.
With tears, Bell said she’s willing to share her story with those willing to be an advocate for children and women in this province.
“I’m told we have very good family laws on the books, but those laws mean nothing if woman and children don’t have access to justice,” she explained.
Between 2002 and 2005 alone, legal aid services in family law were cut by 60 per cent.
Legal aid has been drastically and chronically underfunded in the province and is now almost exclusively available to extremely low income earners fleeing violent relationships, West Coast Leaf said in a press release.
“Even in those life-threatening situations, there are highly restrictive caps on the hours of legal service provided.”
The case is expected to be heard by the Supreme Court of B.C. in 2018.