What We Heard from Mothers
When we founded in 2014 and every year since, mothers have shared with us about the impact of lack of access to justice and lack of access to family law legal aid, particularly for those escaping gender-based domestic violence. In 2017, we joined a constitutional challenge led by Westcoast LEAF regarding our province's failure to provide adequate family law legal aid to women leaving abusive relationships.
As articulated by Westcoat LEAF, 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.
The Test Case
Single Mothers’ Alliance v BC is a constitutional challenge against the Province of BC and the Legal Services Society (now known as Legal Aid BC) for failing to provide adequate family law legal aid to women leaving abusive relationships. West Coast LEAF is providing legal representation to Single Mothers’ Alliance BC and Nicole Bell, a woman whose safety, well-being, and relationship with her 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 Province and LSS made applications to the court arguing that the case should not move ahead in whole (Province) or in part (LSS). On August 23, 2019, the court ruled in no uncertain terms that the case can go ahead as intended. Check out Westcoast LEAF's video about the case featuring SMA's Stephanie Skourtes here.
The trial is scheduled to take place in 2022.
SMA for Gender & Economic Justice spokesperson 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.”
- Response of the Province of British Columbia
- Response of the Legal Services Society
- The Province of BC’s Motion to Strike
- Legal Services Society’s Application to Strike
- Response to the Province of BC’s Application to Strike
- Response to Legal Services Society’s Application to Strike
- BC Supreme Court ruling on Application to Strike
Sample Media Coverage
- News alert – This is big: Constitutional challenge to legal aid launched today!
- News alert – We’re telling the Province and LSS that women’s equality isn’t optional
- News alert – The government is wrong to stand in the way of legal aid challenge
- News alert – They Didn’t Stop Us: Legal aid constitutional challenge full steam ahead