Advocates for women fleeing violence challenge B.C. government’s stance on legal aid system

Supporters of people fleeing domestic violence in BC are decrying what they describe as a government attempt to push them “out on the street” in a constitutional challenge.

According to the West Coast Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF), the province is arguing that Union of Single Mothersa group of volunteers, should not stand in court, as this group does not have the legal capacity to bring it to trial.

“Women are at greater risk of further violence from an abusive ex when they make the important and life-changing decision to leave and find safety, but too many are left without legal assistance at a time of increased risk of violence and harassment,” said West Coast LEAF director Raji Mangat at a rally outside BC . Supreme Court in Vancouver on Tuesday.

“Instead of facing claims at trial, the province is dragging us to court today and over the next few days to waste our time, waste court time and public resources. “

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The Coalition of Single Mothers launched a constitutional lawsuit in 2017, alleging legal aid eligibility in BC did not meet the needs of low-income women, especially those escaping from domestic violence. The provincial government and the BC Legal Aid Foundation, then known as the Legal Services Association, failed in their responsibility to ensure those women had access to the justice system, it claimed.

The West Coast LEAF represented the grassroots group in a three-day hearing that began on Tuesday.

Neither the attorney general nor Legal Aid BC would comment on this story while the matter is being brought before the court.

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Mangat says legal aid eligibility requirements under BC’s family law are problematic as single mothers must earn no more than $29,000 for a household of two to qualify. .

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That means working mothers who earn more often have to represent themselves in a system that’s essentially “broken,” prompting some to retrain because they could be barred from attorneys. of the former partner double-checked.

Mangat adds that women who are working full-time and on minimum wage could be treated as if they had disposable income to spend on legal fees while having to take time off work to stand trial.

“When you consider that we are talking about domestic violence cases, the stakes are very high,” she said. “The abusive ex is usually an unreasonable person, so these are not cases with the prospect of out-of-court resolution.

“Our Family Law Act has a very strict definition of domestic violence and you can do everything you can to protect yourself. But what good is it to have those rules on the books if literally nobody can access them, when you basically have a two-tier system? “

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This is not the first time the Single Mothers’ Alliance case has faced opposition from the BC authorities and Legal Aid BC.

Previously, the province had applied to drop the case, arguing that the statements were not suitable to be decided by the court, while the Legal Services Association argued that the case should not continue partially. In 2019, the Single Mothers Union said the court had ruled “with no certainty” that the case would proceed.

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“We have been hearing about this from single mothers in British Columbia since we founded it in 2014,” said Coalition of Single Mothers director Viveca Ellis.

“What they deserve and what we are fighting for is the right to a trial, to have their experiences understood by the public, to be tried before a court of law and to be seen by all – BC did them. how failed. “

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According to Mangat, currently only the very poor can access some legal aid, but time is limited and does not take into account people with cognitive disabilities or parallel immigration procedures are underway.

Furthermore, she said many women are considered “too affluent” to qualify for legal aid, which “doesn’t match the economic realities” or if they do, many will run out of money. hours of legal aid before a suitable solution can be found. in their case.

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“We’re expecting people to somehow navigate a broken system, and we’re calling for that access to justice,” she said.

The case is aimed at reaching a court ruling on the constitutionality of the existing family law legal aid system. Mangat explained there would be no remedy for the Union of Single Mothers or damages awarded.

As it stands, the trial is scheduled to begin in February 2023.

with files from the Canadian Press

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