Poverty Law Legal Aid Services

The Honourable David Eby, QC
Attorney General of British Columbia and
Minister responsible for Liquor, Gaming and ICBC
Rm 232, Parliament Buildings
501 Belleville St., Victoria, B.C. V8V 1X4

Dear Attorney General Eby:

Re:      Poverty Law Legal Aid Services

We understand that your government is considering funding for poverty law legal aid services, and write to provide some recommendations on how these services could be structured in the short and long terms. The BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre (BCPIAC) is a non-profit social justice law firm that advances the interests of groups that are generally unrepresented or underrepresented in issues of major public concern. One of BCPIAC’s mandate areas is to improve access to legal aid services.

In 2010, the Public Commission on Legal Aid, chaired by Leonard Doust, QC, was established in order to “engage with British Columbians about the future of legal aid in the province.”[1] We wholly endorse the recommendations contained in the Commission’s 2011 final report, entitled Foundation for Change: Report of the Public Commission on Legal Aid in British Columbia (the “Doust Report”).[2]

The Legal Services Society delivered poverty legal aid services via community law offices and Native community law offices around the province until 2002, when poverty legal aid was eliminated from LSS’s mandate and budget. There are virtually no government-funded poverty law services today. The Law Foundation of BC has provided direct funding for anti-poverty and social justice lawyers and advocates over the past years; however, despite their best efforts, a large gap in service remains.

Poverty legal aid broadly covers issues that threaten a person’s ability to meet basic needs (such as shelter, food, and other necessities of life), or that threaten a person’s ability to earn a livelihood. More specifically, these issues may include:

  • Income security matters, such as:
    1. access to government benefits (e.g., provincial income assistance, Canada Pension Plan, Employment Insurance, Worksafe BC, Old Age Security and the Guaranteed Income Supplement, criminal injury compensation).
  • Employment issues, such as:
    1. employment standards;
    2. wrongful dismissal; and
    3. occupational health and safety.
  • Housing issues, such as:
    1. residential tenancies and violations of tenants’ legal rights;
    2. access to subsidized housing;
    3. foreclosures;
    4. housing on reserve land; and
    5. co-operative housing.
  • Debt issues, such as:
    1. unfair lending practices;
    2. bankruptcy; and
    3. debtor harassment.
  • Consumer issues, such as unconscionable transactions.

As observed in the Doust Report, the most vulnerable members of our society need poverty law legal aid:

Clients that typically have poverty law problems may be the most vulnerable in our society as they often have very low levels of education and comprehension, mental health and addiction issues, and have experienced significant trauma. People living in poverty are often dependent on government benefit programs and administrative decision makers, which often have systemic unfairness and accessibility problems. In this context, many people with low incomes are unable to effectively assert their rights without legal advice and representation. Legislation governing poverty law issues is complex and expertise is required. Furthermore, common law rules not apparent in the legislation can impact on process and decision-making, a concept that is generally mystifying to individuals without legal training.[3]

Further, providing poverty legal aid services is an integral step toward meeting your government’s commitment to reducing poverty in BC. Where unrepresented litigants cannot effectively make their case, they may be denied access to legal rights and protections to which they are otherwise entitled. As observed by the Doust Report, “access to these legal entitlements and protections can mean the difference between having a safe place to live or living on the streets, between having food, or going hungry. Inadequate legal aid jeopardizes the survival of our most vulnerable citizens, including people with mental or physical disabilities, the elderly, and single mothers with young children.”[4]

We urge the government to work toward fully implementing the recommendations of the Doust Report, including a comprehensive system of legal aid clinics and regional service centres, as soon as possible.

We recognize, however, that it would be difficult to get a full poverty law legal aid system up and running right away. In order to provide some services on a more immediate basis, we recommend that the provincial government initially fund lawyers and paralegals to provide a full range of poverty law legal aid services through existing poverty law advocacy programs that are currently funded by the Law Foundation of BC. We recommend that the government fund at least one paralegal or legal assistant to work with each poverty law legal aid lawyer. In addition to handling administrative matters, a paralegal could also provide certain legal services, allowing the lawyer to serve more clients more efficiently.

This model has a number of benefits, including:

  • allowing the government to leverage and enhance existing poverty law legal services;
  • providing access to legal advice and representation through trusted community service organizations throughout the province;
  • providing legal advice and representation on more complex and/or systemic poverty law matters, as recommended by the Doust Report;
  • ensuring that legal aid services have a local context and are community-based, as recommended by the Doust Report;
  • developing specialized services in First Nations communities, as recommended by the Doust Report; and
  • delivering poverty law legal aid services in a cost-efficient manner.

We note that our proposal also aligns with the August 2017 Justice Reform for British Columbia Report, issued by the Community Legal Assistance Society, West Coast LEAF, Pivot Legal Society, and the BC Civil Liberties Association, which recommended a mixed model of legal aid service delivery, including “funding for in-house counsel located in front line service delivery organizations.” [5]

In order to determine which agencies should house the poverty law lawyers and paralegals, we suggest that the Attorney General consult with the Law Foundation, community service agencies currently funded by the Law Foundation to deliver poverty law advocacy services, and non-profit law firms that currently provide some systemic poverty law services.

We would welcome the opportunity to discuss this issue further.

Sincerely, 

BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre

Sarah Khan and Kate Feeney
Staff Lawyers

 

[1] http://www.publiccommission.org/About/Main/

[2] http://www.publiccommission.org/media/PDF/pcla_report_03_08_11.pdf

[3] Doust Report, page 29.

[4] Doust Report, page 16.

[5] http://www.westcoastleaf.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Justice-Reform-For-BC-1.pdf

 

Constitutional challenge to inadequate legal aid services launched today

For Immediate Release | BCPIAC

VANCOUVER – Today, West Coast LEAF and the BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre (BCPIAC) announce 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 brought on behalf of Single Mothers’ Alliance of BC and two individual women, Nicole Bell and A.B., whose safety, well-being, and relationships with their children have been threatened by the lack of legal aid services available to them in their family law disputes.

In BC, legal aid services in family law are drastically underfunded, having been cut by 60% between 2002 and 2005. Family legal aid is now almost exclusively available to extremely low income people fleeing violent relationships; even then, there are highly restrictive caps on the hours of legal service provided. This leaves many British Columbians going through divorce and custody battles without a lawyer, even in situations of extreme family violence. Since women are statistically lower income earners and more likely to experience spousal violence than men, this reality leaves women and their children particularly vulnerable as they try to navigate the complex justice system without assistance.

Family law is only as good as your ability to enforce it.

Kasari Govender, Executive Director of West Coast LEAF

The case launched today alleges that the Province has a constitutional responsibility under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to provide access to the justice system for women fleeing violent relationships or dealing with ongoing situations of abuse from ex-spouses. The plaintiffs will argue that the legal aid scheme – and the discretion exercised under the scheme by the Legal Services Society, which administers legal aid – discriminates against women and children and violates their rights to life and security of the person by putting them at further risk of violence and intense stress.

“Canada and BC have a world class justice system and progressive family laws,” says Kasari Govender, Executive Director of West Coast LEAF. “But if you cannot afford a lawyer, all of those legal protections are meaningless. Family 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. 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.

Kate Feeney, Staff lawyer at BCPIAC

“When a person working full time for minimum wage does not even qualify for legal aid because their income is deemed ‘too high,’ we know something is deeply wrong with our system,” says Kate Feeney, staff lawyer at BCPIAC. “The current structure of legal aid means that most women have to represent themselves in highly complex family law proceedings. This includes having to cross examine an abusive former spouse on the stand – or even worse, having to give up their legal rights and the rights of their children because they don’t have a lawyer to represent them. The chronic underfunding of legal aid for over a decade has caused harm to many British Columbian families.”

Debbie Henry is a board member and spokesperson for Single Mothers’ Alliance of BC, a grassroots non-profit organization by and for single mothers and one of the plaintiffs in the case. Henry says, “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.”

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, see the Backgrounder, Factsheet, and pleadings.

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Media Contact
Basya Laye, Director of Development and Engagement
West Coast LEAF
604-684-8772, ext. 214
development@westcoastleaf.org

BC woman’s Charter challenge forces provincial government to provide legal representation to all people detained under the Mental Health Act

For Immediate Release | BCPIAC

Please note, there is a court-ordered publication ban in place

VANCOUVER, B.C. – A BC woman known as Z.B. has won an important legal victory ensuring that everyone detained under the Mental Health Act has access to legal representation when their continued detention is under review. The BC government has settled Z.B.’s Charter challenge by agreeing to adequately fund legal aid for individuals detained under the Mental Health Act.

mental-health-legal-aid-victory-2-300x300 BC woman’s Charter challenge forces provincial government to provide legal representation to all people detained under the Mental Health ActIn August 2016, Z.B., who was then involuntarily detained and hospitalized, launched a Charter challenge arguing that she had a constitutional right to legal representation at her review hearing. Z.B. could not afford a lawyer and had requested legal aid from the Community Legal Assistance Society (CLAS), which contracts with the government to provide legal aid to involuntary patients. Although Z.B. was eligible to receive legal aid, CLAS had no choice but to deny her request solely because it did not have capacity to provide her with representation at the time of her hearing. It is well documented that the BC government has chronically underfunded legal aid for many years, such that CLAS has been forced to deny legal aid to hundreds of eligible involuntary patients every year since approximately 2009.

On the same day that Z.B. launched her Charter challenge, the BC government agreed to provide her with legal aid for her review hearing. However, Z.B. was determined to help other involuntary patients, who can be not only detained against their will but also forcibly medicated, and demanded a systemic response to her case. In December 2016, after months of negotiations, the BC government agreed to provide CLAS with additional annual funding to enable them to provide legal representation without delay to all involuntary patients who want legal aid for their review hearings and are financially eligible to receive it.

Kate Feeney, a staff lawyer at the BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre (BCPIAC) and counsel for Z.B., states, “We want to thank Z.B. for taking on this case and for sharing her very personal story with the public. Her courage during a difficult time in her life resulted in a remarkable systemic solution after years of government inaction.”

“Few rights are more fundamental to human liberty than freedom from unconstitutional or arbitrary detention…”

Caily DiPuma, Acting Litigation Director at the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA), which has been a supporter of this case, states: “Few rights are more fundamental to human liberty than freedom from unconstitutional or arbitrary detention – including the right to be free from forcible medical interventions. The outcome in this case ensures that British Columbians involuntarily detained under the Mental Health Act receive adequate legal representation as guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

Campaign calls on BC government and official opposition to “step up for Women’s equality”

West Coast LEAF, a BC organization dedicated to promoting women’s equality through the law, along with a long list of endorsing BC organizations, have called on the BC government and the official opposition to step up for Women’s equality and “commit to implementing – fully and without delay – the UN’s recommendations to demonstrably improve the lives of women in our province”

Read the letter to the BC government and official opposition here. (text below)

West Coast LEAF’s campaign page can be found here.

Read the UN’s recommendations here.

Dear Premier Clark and Mr. Horgan,

WCL-legal-aid-shareable-300x300 Campaign calls on BC government and official opposition to "step up for Women's equality"We write to ask you to commit to implement, fully and without delay, the enclosed recommendations of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. The recommendations were issued on November 18, 2016 after the Committee’s review of Canada’s compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) at its 65th session.

We cannot stress enough the importance of implementing these recommendations. Women’s equality in Canada has regressed over the last two decades. In 1995, Canada held 1st place on the United Nations Gender Equality Index; Canada is now at 25th. Recently, the World Economic Forum ranked Canada 35th on gender equality out of 144 countries. To make matters worse, equality for women in BC is lagging behind the rest of Canada on multiple measures. For example:

  • BC consistently has among the highest poverty rates in Canada, and poverty rates for single women, and particularly single women caring for children, are shockingly high. Further, BC is the only province in Canada without a poverty reduction plan.
  • Families led by women parenting alone experience the highest rates of food insecurity in BC, and the rate is higher than the Canadian average for comparable households.
  • The average earnings of women in BC are well below the Canadian average female earnings and the pay gap between male and female workers in British Columbia is larger than the national average.
  • At BC’s current minimum wage, the earnings of a full time, full year worker are below the poverty line and the majority of minimum wage earners are women. In addition, BC maintains a lower liquor server wage despite research showing that dependency on gratuities increases the risk that these mostly female workers will be subject to sexual harassment.
  • Mothers’ workforce participation rates in BC, access to regulated child care spaces in BC, and provincial public investment per space are all below the Canadian average. Meanwhile, parent fees for regulated child care are higher than the national average.
  • Front line services for women and children harmed by violence have been chronically underfunded, despite the fact that BC has a growing rate of domestic violence-related homicides.
  • BC remains the only province without a human rights commission, which means there is little to no systemic education and monitoring related to gender discrimination in key areas such as employment, housing and public services.
  • British Columbia’s per capita spending on legal aid, services that are crucial to enable women to enforce their legal rights and leave violent relationships, is far lower than the national average.

We know that Canada and British Columbia can do better.

WCL-over-incarceration-shareable-300x300 Campaign calls on BC government and official opposition to "step up for Women's equality"However, Canada, and in particular British Columbia, has a serious implementation gap. For years, Canada and British Columbia have ignored UN treaty body advice and recommendations, to the detriment of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable residents and to the detriment of British Columbia as a whole. Canada has no national mechanism for monitoring and facilitating implementation of treaty body recommendations, and British Columbia has no provincial mechanism for implementation of recommendations within its jurisdiction. Further, there is no mechanism for co-operation between federal and provincial governments on implementation in areas where co-ordination among all levels of government is critical. Because of this, treaty body recommendations tend to be ignored rather than realized in a substantive way through government planning, policy, and programs.

The Canadian and British Columbia governments can take a huge step forward for women and for human rights by immediately beginning to plan for implementation of the CEDAW Committee’s most recent recommendations. The CEDAW recommendations cover a wide range of issues crucial to women’s advancement, many of which are all or partly within provincial jurisdiction: access to legal aid; the gender wage gap and pay equity; housing and poverty reduction; child care; political participation; violence; the socio-economic conditions of Indigenous women; the needs of women with disabilities; detention of racialized women and women with mental health issues; access to abortion; harm reduction strategies; and much more.

Given the legal responsibility and leadership role of the Government of Canada, we have called on the federal government to establish an accountability mechanism and to, in cooperation with the provinces and territories, develop a national gender equality plan so that we can move forward in a coordinated and strategic way to fully implement women’s human rights and advance women’s equality. British Columbia’s commitment and cooperation will be crucial to ensure that implementation is meaningful for women in our province.

The CEDAW Committee recommends two mechanisms for implementation of the Convention rights and treaty body recommendations:

  • WCL-MMIW-shareable-300x300 Campaign calls on BC government and official opposition to "step up for Women's equality"an effective mechanism for ensuring accountability and the transparent, coherent and consistent implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women throughout all jurisdictions (at para 11); and
  • a comprehensive national gender strategy, policy and action plan that addresses the structural factors causing persistent inequalities for women and girls, including those who are Indigenous, Afro-Canadian, racialized, disabled, immigrant, refugee and LGBTQ (at para 21).

Coordinated, robust work to advance women’s equality is particularly timely in light of burgeoning attacks on women’s rights and dignity globally. We urge you to publicly commit to take a leadership role and lead British Columbia to provide a model for other provinces by working with the federal government to take progressive, determined action to implement the CEDAW Committee’s concrete and detailed recommendations. We need action now that demonstrates British Columbia’s genuine commitment to fulfilling women’s human rights.

We look forward to your response and to working with you on a new plan for women’s equality in British Columbia and for the realization of women’s human rights.

Sincerely,

The BC CEDAW Group*

This letter is endorsed by:

Battered Women’s Support Services
BC Poverty Reduction Coalition
BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre
BC Society of Transition Houses
Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives – BC Office
Canadian Federation of University Women BC Council
Coalition of Child Care Advocates of BC
Disability Alliance BC
Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre
Hospital Employees’ Union
Ending Violence Association of BC
First Call: BC Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition
Isabel Grant, Professor and Co-Director, Centre for Feminist Legal Studies, Peter A. Allard School of Law, University of British Columbia
Justice for Girls
Living Wage for Families Campaign
Lynne Kent, Chair, Learning Disabilities Association of BC
Margot Young, Professor of Law, Allard Hall Law School, University of British Columbia Poverty and Human Rights Centre
Single Mothers’ Alliance BC
Susan Boyd, Professor Emerita, Peter A. Allard Law School, University of British Columbia
Together Against Poverty Society
University Women’s Club of Vancouver
Vancouver Rape Relief & Women’s Shelter
Vancouver Women’s Health Collective
West Coast LEAF
Women Against Violence Against Women Rape Crisis Centre
Women Transforming Cities

*The BC CEDAW Group is a coalition individuals and organizations committed to advancing the rights of women and girls in British Columbia. Formed in 2002, the Group has participated in United Nations periodic reviews before a variety of treaty bodies, reporting to the UN on BC’s progress. The 2017 BC CEDAW Group includes the Coalition of Child Care Advocates of BC, Hospital Employees Union, Justice for Girls, Poverty and Human Rights Centre, Vancouver Committee for Domestic Workers and Caregivers Rights, Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter, West Coast LEAF, Single Mothers’ Alliance BC, and the Vancouver Women’s Health Collective.

BC woman launches challenge for right to legal representation in Mental Health Act detentions

For Immediate Release | BCPIAC

Please note, there is a court-ordered publication ban in place

VANCOUVER, B.C. – On Friday, August 12, 2016, Z.B., a woman currently detained in hospital as an involuntary patient under the Mental Health Act, launched a legal challenge in the B.C. Supreme Court, arguing that she has the constitutional right to a government-funded lawyer at an upcoming review of her detention.

Z.B. has asked the Court to grant an injunction requiring the Province to provide her with a lawyer for her Mental Health Review Board hearing on August 23, 2016. Her full constitutional arguments will be heard at a later date.

Z.B. cannot afford to hire a lawyer and had requested legal aid representation from the Community Legal Assistance Society (CLAS), which contracts with the Legal Services Society to provide legal aid for Review Panel hearings. Despite her eligibility for legal aid, CLAS denied her request because it did not have a lawyer available to represent her at the time of her hearing.  Since 2009, it is well-documented that CLAS has been chronically under funded by the provincial government in this critical area, such that it is not able to meet the demand for its services.

Mark Underhill, a partner with Underhill Gage Litigation and lead counsel for Z.B., states “Z.B. has a constitutional right to a fair hearing to challenge her detention.  In her case, there is no serious question that she requires legal representation to have any chance at a fair hearing.”

Kate Feeney, a staff lawyer at the BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre (BCPIAC) and counsel for Z.B., states, “the BC government’s ongoing failure to meet its legal aid obligations to involuntary patients has put Z.B. in the unacceptable position of having to fight for her right to lawyer during an exceptionally difficult time in her life.”

Grace Pastine, Litigation Director at the BC Civil Liberties Association, stated: “Most involuntary patients do not have the capacity to represent themselves at Mental Health Review Board hearings. These hearings are complex and almost all involuntary patients have or are perceived to have mental health problems. Many are also dealing with the side effects of psychiatric treatments such as mind-altering psychotropic drugs and electroconvulsive shock therapy.”

As Commissioner Leonard T. Doust, QC said in his 2011 report “Foundation for Change: Report of the Public Commission on Legal Aid in British Columbia,” for those individuals trying to navigate the Mental Health Act hearing process without legal representation, “[i]t almost goes without saying that this is a profound violation of the rights of one of the most vulnerable segments of our community”.  [emphasis added]

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FULL Press Release

Background Information

REPORT: Refugee Reform & Access to Counsel in British Columbia

August 26, 2015 | Lobat Sadrehashemi, Peter Edeldmann & Suzanne Baustad

Since December 2012 the refugee determination process in Canada has undergone drastic changes. This report is based on in-depth interviews and focus groups with refugee claimants, their lawyers and service providers in British Columbia about the impacts of these changes on refugee claimants’ access to legal representation.

refugee-report-300x292 REPORT: Refugee Reform & Access to Counsel in British Columbia   Canada’s refugee determination system fundamentally changed in December 2012 as a result of the coming into force of the Balanced Refugee Reform Act (formerly Bill C-11) and the Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act (formerly Bill C-31). The sweeping amendments were given Royal Assent only four months after the legislation was introduced and were implemented six months later, with limited time to digest the impact of the changes.

Refugee claimants are among the most vulnerable people attempting to navigate the legal system in Canada, and for whom the consequences of decisions are among the most significant – refugee decisions are often literally matters of life and death. The vulnerability of claimants, the serious consequences of the legal proceedings and the lack of an established right to a state-funded lawyer, make it critical that the first years of implementation of the redesigned system be closely monitored.

This report, based on focus groups and in-depth interviews with lawyers and service providers working with refugee claimants in British Columbia, considers the impact the legislative changes have had on refugee claimants’ access to legal counsel throughout the refugee determination process.

Download the report here.

Legal aid awarded to woman fighting ex-husband’s vacation plans

Nov 20, 2014 | Jason Proctor | CBC News

Link to original article

In the wake of a B.C. Supreme Court challenge, the province’s Legal Services Society has reversed a decision to deny legal aid to a Lower Mainland woman who wants to fight her ex-husband’s plans to take their children to India.

The about-face comes as the Trial Lawyer’s Association of B.C. says it is preparing to challenge the province next year in court over problems resulting from what the legal community claims is chronic under-funding of the legal aid system.

Meanwhile, the association says it expects more cases like that of P.G., the woman who filed a petition asking for a judicial review of a decision denying her application for legal aid.

P.G. fears her ex-husband won’t return from India if allowed to take their two children on vacation, but she says she lacks the English skills to navigate the court system.

“This is affecting thousands of people and it basically has resulted in a lack of access to justice which is not really tolerable in our society,” says Chris Johnson, a co-chair with the trial lawyers association.

“It creates an imbalance over and over again where one party is able to essentially crush the other party who doesn’t have a lawyer.”

Decision reviewed

P.G. filed a petition in B.C. Supreme Court this week with the help of the B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre. She claims her ex-husband is manipulative and emotionally abusive and she needs legal representation “to ensure my voice and concerns for my children are heard.”

Mark Benton, CEO of the Legal Services Society, says a decision was made to give P.G. legal aid after reviewing the material she presented in court.

“They assessed it based on that imminence of risk and the background and felt that it met the current criteria,” he says.

Benton says the province drastically reduced legal aid funding in 2002. A priority is placed on criminal cases, meaning two-thirds of applications for help in family law are denied.

“It’s enough to provide the current level of service, which is basically an emergency level of funding,” he says.

“We’ve got thousands and thousands of people who show up, wait in the waiting room or wait on line to apply by phone because they need help, and we’re refusing 60 to 66 per cent of them.”

“It’s reasonable to assume that anybody who’s going to come and make that application is going to come because they feel they have a need.”

Court challenge in 2015?

In a growing protest movement, trial lawyers are refusing to schedule legal aid matters in the first week of each month. The withdrawal now includes Vancouver, North Vancouver, Richmond, Surrey, Victoria and Kamloops. Johnson says he expects the protest to expand to Abbotsford and Chilliwack shortly.

He says the kind of fears and legal imbalance raised in P.G.’s petition reflect larger concerns about access to justice and rights guaranteed under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

To that end, Johnson says the association recently retained outside counsel to produce an opinion on the possibility of taking the province to court over legal aid. He says they are currently raising funds to mount a challenge.

“That would be with respect to a broad range of areas where people have been denied access to justice; that would include family law, poverty law and mentally-ill persons,” Johnson says.

“It’s an issue that the government’s going to have to deal with, and so far I think it’s been too easy for them not to deal with it.”

The province is providing the Legal Services Society $74.5 million in 2014-15, including a $2 million annual increase over three years to fund expansion of legal aid in family and criminal law.

Last week, Justice Minister Suzanne Anton announced a new legal aid project to provide mediation to families hoping to resolve conflicts of property, debt, spousal support or child-related issues without going to court.

Legal aid denied: woman asks court to overturn decision

Nov 19, 2014 | Jason Proctor | CBC News

Link to original article

A Lower Mainland woman wants a B.C. Supreme Court judge to overturn a B.C. Legal Services Society decision denying her legal aid.

Backed by the B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre, the woman, who can only be identified as P.G., claims she lacks the skill and confidence to adequately represent herself against an ex-husband she accuses of “emotional and mental abuse.”

The couple have two children, aged 11 and nine. In a petition filed in B.C. Supreme Court, P.G. says her ex-husband has applied to vary an order prohibiting him from removing the children from British Columbia.

He claims he wants to take them on vacation to India. But P.G. says she fears that if he leaves the country, he won’t return.

“English is not [P.G.’s] first language. She can understand and speak in English but frequently has trouble being understood by others,” the petition says.

“She has difficulty understanding legal concepts and terminology in English.”

Chronic under-funding

The case takes place against a backdrop of what many lawyers claim is chronic under-funding of the legal aid system.

The Trial Lawyers Association of B.C. withdrew legal aid services this summer in protest. They recently announced plans to refuse to schedule legal aid cases for the first week of each month.

In June, Mark Benton, CEO of the Legal Service Society told CBC the organization had been squeezing every dime for the past two decades.

“We’re refusing very, very high numbers of people,” Benton told B.C. Almanac host Mark Forsythe.

“Two out of three people who come through the door for a family problem are refused legal aid right now.”

Lawyer Lobat Sadrehashemi represents P.G. for the advocacy centre. In her petition, the woman claims an employee of a transitional housing centre helped her apply for legal aid to fight her ex-husband’s court applications.

“Although I am separated from my ex-husband, the emotional and mental abuse I suffered during our marriage has not stopped. He continues to find ways to manipulate situations in his favour,” the woman wrote in one letter.

“I desperately need legal representation to ensure my voice and concerns for my children are heard.”

“Not covered”

According to the P.G.’s petition, a provincial supervisor with legal aid told her “the type of legal problem you face is not covered by Legal Services Society.”

The society allegedly said he would have to bear the onus of proving that moving to India would be in the best interests of the children.

“Although the Legal Services Society is not able to provide a lawyer to appear with you, you should have confidence that the judge who hears the case will understand the history of the case and will do what is needed to make sure you are treated fairly and look out for the best interest of your children.”

Sadrehashemi says P.G. wants the decision overturned and sent back to the society for reconsideration. She says challenges to legal aid decisions are rare, but cases like P.G.’s are not.

“This case isn’t unique and there’s many people in the situation that are facing really critical legal problems that have a huge impacts on their lives and their families and just can’t afford to access the justice system,” Sadrehashemi says.

“It’s extremely, extremely terrifying. The court system is really, really complicated.”

A spokesman for the Legal Services Society declined comment.

None of the allegations have been proven in court.