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

 

Accessibility at the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction

poverty-reduction-strategy-final Accessibility at the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction

The Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction will be addressing poverty in BC with a Poverty Reduction Strategy

And we’re thrilled! Now is the time to tackle the serious (and worsening) issues with service delivery at the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction, and raise BC’s shamefully low social assistance rates.

Honourable Shane Simpson
Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction
PO Box 9290 Stn Prov Govt
Victoria BC V8W 9J7

Dear Minister Simpson:

RE: Accessibility at the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction

Congratulations on your appointment as Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction. We are thrilled about your strong mandate to improve life for people on welfare and reduce poverty in British Columbia.

We are writing to you to set out some longstanding and worsening problems that low income people have when trying to access income assistance through the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction (“MSDPR”), and also to propose a number of solutions to these problems.

Accessibility problems

BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre (“BCPIAC”) is mandated to address systemic issues affecting low income people across the province. Based on consultations with members of the anti-poverty community, we have recently focused our efforts on improving accessibility at your ministry. We are concerned that there is a growing number of British Columbians who are in need of income assistance and disability assistance (often collectively called “welfare”), and are in fact legally eligible for it, but are struggling to survive without it simply because they cannot navigate the welfare system.

As you know, over the past several years, the recently renamed MSDPR has transitioned from delivering services primarily in person to delivering services primarily through an online portal and over a centralized 1-866 phone line. Wait times on the phone line are extremely long – regularly averaging over 45 minutes – and workers are pressured to keep calls within short, arbitrary time limits whether or not the caller’s issue is resolved. Meanwhile, there have been massive reductions in in-person services, including office closures across the province and removal of discretion for frontline workers. Increasingly, those who go into a Ministry office for help are told to leave and use the online portal or phone line instead. This is the case despite the fact that the Assistant Deputy Minister of Service Delivery has repeatedly told advocates that people who require in-person service can go to the front desk of an MSDPR office for intake.

As a result, in order to meaningfully access MSDPR’s services, most welfare applicants and recipients now require:

  • Generous access to a phone, computer, and internet;
  • Computer and internet proficiency; and
  • Ability to effectively communicate and receive information online and over the phone, through a call centre.

We frequently hear advocates and individuals comment that “a person practically has to be middle class to be on welfare these days.” The assumptions underlying this service delivery model do not reflect the lived experiences of many welfare applicants and recipients. First, social assistance in BC is described by the Ministry itself as “income of last resort”, meaning that applicants must exhaust almost all other income and assets before they are even eligible to apply. Welfare applicants and recipients are very poor and most cannot afford their own phones, computers, and internet access. Second, welfare applicants and recipients disproportionately have characteristics that heighten the need for accessible services and accommodation, including:

  • Physical and/or mental disabilities (including mental illness);
  • Limited ability to express themselves or be understood in English;
  • Status as a recent immigrant to Canada, an Indigenous person, and/or as a member of a racialized group;
  • Limited education; and/or
  • Rural isolation.

In its policy manual, MSDPR recognizes that it has a duty to accommodate its clients, and states that it will accommodate individuals who require in-person services. However, members of the anti-poverty community report to us that in practice, MSDPR rarely provides in-person services to individuals who require them. Instead, it has become common practice in MSDPR offices for staff to refer those that need help navigating MSDPR services to community organizations. The reality to which MSDPR must answer is that many, if not most, welfare applicants and recipients require in-person services as a matter of accommodation. Further, those individuals with the highest accessibility needs also tend to be the most entrenched in poverty, meaning that when they are denied access to welfare, they must survive on little to no money.

We (and many others) have repeatedly raised these problems, and a solution is long overdue. In a systemic complaint to the BC Ombudsperson in May 2015 filed on behalf of nine community organizations across the province, we described these problems in detail, and provided a large body of evidence to demonstrate how MSDPR’s service delivery model is effectively shutting vulnerable people out. A copy of that complaint is attached to this letter as Appendix A. We also made submissions about these issues to the Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services in 2015 and 2016; our submission from October 2016 is attached to this letter as Appendix B.

Despite our work and the vocal opposition to MSDPR’s service delivery changes by those who regularly interact with the welfare system, MSDPR has continued to forge ahead with its move to an increasingly complex, impersonal, and tech-based model of service delivery. In the meantime, vulnerable people are left without critical supports simply because they cannot navigate the bureaucratic labyrinth.

A recent change by MSDPR is illustrative of the incongruence between MSDPR’s service delivery and the people MSDPR serves. For several years, MSDPR has had an online component to its income assistance application, which applicants must complete before proceeding to the next stages of the application process. The online component was inaccessible to many applicants because it was only offered online in English and was complex and time-consuming. In February 2017, despite widespread criticism about the accessibility of the online component, MSDPR moved its entire income assistance application online. Further, the online application now requires applicants to complete the following steps before they can even apply for assistance:

  • Register for an online account on MSDPR’s “MySelfServe” portal, which in turn requires that applicants:
    • Have access to or create a personal email account; and
    • Create a BCelD username and password.

Since its introduction in February, the latest version of the application process has prompted a flood of calls and emails to our office from advocates and individuals confounded by these new requirements. While MSDPR says that it provides remote-based phone support to applicants who require accommodation in completing the online application, this does not respond to the anti-poverty community’s concerns about the online application. First, asking applicants to complete the application over the phone raises many of the same accessibility issues as asking them to complete the application online. It does not at all accommodate applicants who require in-person assistance in order to complete the application. Second, members of the anti-poverty community report to us that in practice, MSDPR refuses to provide phone support to those who request it.

In May 2017, BCPIAC sent an open letter to all candidates in the provincial election outlining the issues with the new online application process, and calling for candidates to commit to addressing them; that letter is attached here as Appendix C.

Recommendations for change

We are so pleased to have a new government that has committed to creating a province “where no one is left behind.” In service of that commitment, we ask that you take steps immediately to ensure that the most vulnerable people in the province can access the supports they need – supports to which they are legally entitled.

Specifically, we recommend the following:

  1. Providing timely in-person individualized assistance to those that need it;
  2. Providing computers and Ministry staff at every Ministry office for the purposes of helping applicants through the application process for income assistance and other supports;
  3. Modifying the online application for income assistance so that it is not mandatory to create an email address and BCelD;
  4. Institute a review of MSDPR’s accessibility as part of the broader poverty reduction strategy; and
  5. Implement accountability and performance measures based on that review.

We would welcome the opportunity to discuss this letter with you further. We would also be very pleased to work with you in a collaborative manner to improve access to MSDPR services.

Sincerely,

Kate Feeney          Erin Pritchard
Staff Lawyer          Staff Lawyer

cc:
Mable Elmore, Parliamentary Secretary for Poverty Reduction &
MLA (Vancouver-Kensington)