Islamophobia Legal Assistance Hotline launched by legal community

For Immediate Release

BCPIAC, CLAS, BCCLA, FACLBC, SABABC, CBABC, NCCM, CABL, Access Pro Bono

VANCOUVER (March 9, 2016) – Today the legal community in British Columbia launched the Islamophobia Legal Assistance Hotline, after a nationwide increase in reported incidents of racial and faith-related discrimination against Muslims in recent months. The hotline will connect individuals who have experienced discrimination with free, confidential legal advice and information. The number is 604-343-3828. Members of the public can also learn about the service on the Islamophobia Hotline website.

As a legal community, it is our duty to pull together and ensure that people who are affected by this racism are able to protect their rights.

“Islamophobia can be experienced in many different ways,” said Sarah Khan, staff lawyer at the B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre. “We have heard reports of harassment, violent attacks, racial profiling, property destruction and threats from across the country. Islamophobia affects everyday Canadians as they go about their lives, their schooling and their work. As a legal community, it is our duty to pull together and ensure that people who are affected by this racism are able to protect their rights.”

The hotline is being run by Access Pro Bono Society of BC, a non-profit that assists individuals of limited means to obtain free legal services. Staff at Access Pro Bono will receive the calls and connect those in need of assistance with lawyers who are willing to provide a free legal advice or information. Interpretation will be available in order to provide services in multiple languages.

FB_graphic Islamophobia Legal Assistance Hotline launched by legal community

“We want to help empower people to respond to this discrimination by making legal support more easily available,” said Aleem Bharmal, Executive Director of the Community Legal Assistance Society. “Many people who experience this sort of discrimination may not even know that there might be legal options available to respond, depending on what happened, such as filing a discrimination complaint at the Human Rights Tribunal. We want to make sure people can get the advice that they need.”

“Discrimination against Muslims, and people perceived to be Muslims, is an intolerable and ongoing reality in Canada,” said Hasan Alam, a Vancouver lawyer who has helped to organize the hotline. “The heated rhetoric of last year’s election built on years of divisive politics that repeatedly singled out Muslim Canadians and treated them as less worthy. This has made Muslims more vulnerable to discriminatory treatment and hate crimes. It’s important to make sure that people who experience this hateful treatment can access help, which could include filing a complaint or contacting the police.”

Krisha Dhaliwal of the South Asian Bar Association of B.C. added: “Anti-Muslim racism, discrimination and hatred affect members of many different communities in B.C. It extends beyond Muslims to others who may be mistaken for Muslims, including Sikhs. Lawyers and law students are standing together, shoulder to shoulder, to combat discrimination against Muslims and other people of colour.”

The Islamophobia Legal Assistance Hotline will also document, without individually identifying information, the types of issues that are being reported in order to better understand the scope of the problem in British Columbia.

The Hotline was launched with the support of Access Pro Bono Society, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, the B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre, the Community Legal Assistance Society, the Canadian Bar Association – BC Branch, the Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers, Western Chapter, the National Council of Canadian Muslims, the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers, and the South Asian Bar Association of B.C.

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Tim Hortons: Human rights complaint to proceed against fast food giant

Company fails in bid to have complaint thrown out

For Immediate Release | BCPIAC and CLAS

Last Friday, the BC Human Rights Tribunal rejected Tim Hortons’ attempt to have a human rights complaint against it dismissed at an early stage.  The complaint was brought in 2012 by four temporary foreign workers from Mexico who say they experienced discrimination in the workplace while they were employed at two Tim Hortons locations in Dawson Creek, BC, while the franchise owner was also their landlord. The workers allege that they were given less desirable schedules and tasks than locally hired workers, were subject to derogatory and racist comments, and were coerced to live in substandard housing.  BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre (BCPIAC) and Community Legal Assistance Society (CLAS) are representing the workers in their complaint against both the individual franchise owner and the franchisor, Tim Hortons.

The Tribunal rejected Tim Hortons’ argument that the workers’ relationship was solely with the franchise owner, not the company. The workers countered that the company contributed to the discrimination they experienced by promoting the use of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) among its franchisees, yet failing to adopt business practices that would protect those workers from being mistreated. The workers also argued that since the company exercises strong control over all aspects of its franchise locations, Tim Hortons must be considered to be their employer in addition to the individual franchisee.

We are encouraged by the Tribunal’s decision, and are eager to move forward with the merits of the complaint

Erin Pritchard | BCPIAC staff lawyer

The Tribunal has not yet made a decision on the merit of the complaint, but has said that if the workers’ allegations are proven at hearing, Tim Hortons could be found responsible for the discrimination in employment the workers have alleged.

“We are encouraged by the Tribunal’s decision, and are eager to move forward with the merits of the complaint,” said, Erin Pritchard, one of the lawyers representing the workers.  “Tim Hortons must take responsibility for the way workers are treated in its restaurants.”

The Tribunal’s decision follows hot on the heels of another decision on November 5, in which the Tribunal rejected Tim Hortons’ attempt to have a second complaint about discriminatory treatment of its temporary foreign workers dismissed.  That case concerns the treatment of Filipino temporary foreign workers at Tim Hortons location in Fernie BC.

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Download the Press Release

Download BC Human Rights Tribunal Decision

Download the human rights complaint against Tim Hortons

Changing the meaning of citizenship

Lobat Sadrehashemi

Originally published in Cultures West Magazine Fall 2015 Issue

The government of Canada introduced the Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act (Bill C-24) in February 2014, and the bill received royal assent in June 2014.As of June 11, 2015 all the provisions are now in force. This new law fundamentally changes our citizenship laws including the requirements for obtaining citizenship and expanding the grounds to take citizenship away.

Citizenship is now harder to obtain

Citizenship is now harder to obtain The government has increased the fees for filing an application from $400 to $630. The language testing requirements are also much stricter, now requiring applicants until the age of 64 to take the test; prior to the changes, applicants older than 54 were exempt. Permanent residents will also take longer to be able to apply for citizenship as the new requirement means they must be physically present in Canada four out of six years instead of three out of four. Further, applicants can no longer count their physical presence in Canada while they were not yet permanent residents. This means people who were working or studying legally in Canada can no longer include this time when calculating their physical presence in Canada. This will create even more delays for temporary workers, students, refugees, and live-in caregivers to be eligible for Canadian citizenship.

Applicants must now declare that they “intend to reside in Canada”

There is a new requirement for the granting of citizenship – applicants must now declare that they “intend to reside in Canada.” The “intent to reside” condition makes the nature of a naturalized Canadian’s citizenship different than those of Canadians who were born in Canada. It is only the naturalized Canadian who will have to wonder whether they are violating their declaration if they decide to study, accept a job, or move in with a romantic partner outside of Canada.

There are more grounds to revoke citizenship and less procedural protections for those subject to citizenship revocation proceedings. Before this law came into effect, the government could only revoke citizenship in cases where a person was found to have misrepresented on their immigration application. The new law allows the government to revoke the citizenship of people convicted of serious offences like terrorism or treason. Yet these laws do not apply to all Canadians – the new revocation power only applies to dual citizens. Moreover, the new law lessens a person’s procedural rights in these circumstances. Most revocation proceedings will now happen without a hearing. It will be a paper process with a government bureaucrat.

This law has created different classes of citizenship in Canada

This law has created different classes of citizenship in Canada, providing some citizens with a better more robust citizenship than others. Dual citizens have less secure citizenship than mono-citizens; newly naturalized Canadians have an even less secure citizenship. The government has already begun issuing revocation notices. BC Civil Liberties Association and Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers have announced that they intend to file a constitutional challenge to the new law.

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.

Ombudsperson office denied request for systemic investigation into inaccessibility at BC’s welfare ministry

For Immediate Release | BCPIAC

In a decision dated June 23, 2015, then Ombudsperson, Kim Carter, denied the request of nine social service agencies from across the province for a systemic investigation into service reductions at the Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation that shut out many eligible people from accessing income assistance. The complaint, filed by the BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre (BCPIAC), a law office in Vancouver, in May 2015, alleged that the government has created insurmountable barriers that deprive people of critical income support to which they are legally entitled.

The alleged barriers set out in the complaint included office closures and significant reductions in office hours, channelling calls to under-resourced centralized call centres that serve the whole province and have lengthy wait times, and the creation of a complicated, 90-screen online application process.  The complaint also pointed out that most income assistance recipients do not have phones or internet access, and many are not computer literate, so the Ministry’s changes do not make sense for the users of its services.

Our clients are disappointed that there will be no systemic investigation into the serious barriers to access to welfare that they witness on a daily basis.

Ms. Carter, who is no longer in the position of Ombudsperson, set out in her decision that the Ombudsperson’s office would continue to welcome individual complaints relating to the service delivery issues raised in the complaint. Ms. Carter advised that focusing on a systemic complaint would take resources away from the many individual complaints their office receives from vulnerable individuals trying to access the welfare ministry.

As of July 1, 2015, Kim Carter, is no longer in the position of Ombudsperson for BC. Jay Chalke is the new Ombudsperson.

“Our clients are disappointed that there will be no systemic investigation into the serious barriers to access to welfare that they witness on a daily basis. We are currently exploring options as to how to address these critical concerns about access to basic income supports,” said Lobat Sadrehashemi of BCPIAC.

Download the Complaint to the Ombudsperson dated May 12, 2015

Download Kim Carter’s June 2015 decision

Income assistance program failing B.C.’s most vulnerable, advocates say

July 01, 2015 | Kat Sieniuc | The Globe and Mail

Link to original article

Christopher Shay thought he was going to lose everything. An unsuccessful job search left the 42-year-old man broke, hungry and with an eviction notice for his Vancouver-area apartment.

Mr. Shay, who is deaf, applied to the province’s Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation for immediate income assistance. The urgency of his situation qualified him to receive – at minimum – a food voucher or shelter referral within one business day, according to the ministry’s policies.

He and his lawyer both say he received neither for five weeks.

“They never phoned to say, ‘Hey, did you get evicted? Do you have any money for groceries?’ None of that happened,” said Mr. Shay’s lawyer, Sarah Khan.

Mr. Shay said he didn’t get anything from the province until he received his first social-assistance cheque for about $960. By then, he had lost 20 pounds from not eating, he said.

His case is an extreme example of what outreach advocates say is a common problem for people in dire situations who ask for immediate assistance from the provincial government: Applicants are often waiting longer than a day to receive short-term resources or to hear back from the ministry at all.

It just felt like I was being completely ignored through the process.

Mr. Shay said the ministry should have done more to help him.

“[The ministry] kept saying they couldn’t do anything, they couldn’t help, they couldn’t provide anything,” Mr. Shay said through a sign-language interpreter.

“It just felt like I was being completely ignored through the process.”

The ministry’s policy says people applying for social assistance who indicate an immediate need – for food, shelter or medical attention – must be given an appointment with an agent within one business day. If there are no appointments available, “staff must ensure the applicant is provided with or informed of and directed to other available resources … until an intake interview can be held to determine eligibility,” the policy says.

Those resources include food vouchers, shelter referrals, bus tickets and money for urgent medical attention, according to the ministry’s website.

“It’s [taking] over a day to just meet the immediate need of a food voucher,” said Zoe MacMillan, an advocate at Together Against Poverty Society.

“And even then, that would often take a lot of advocacy to let the person know they should ask for a food voucher – calling and following up, doing those extra steps to push the issue.”

The ministry insists all immediate needs were met in one business day last year by providing applicants with vouchers or referrals. However, the ministry also said it does not keep specific data on clients with immediate needs, and a spokesperson could not explain how the department measured its success rate.

Social Development Minister Michelle Stilwell did not make herself available for an interview. She said in an e-mail statement that the policy “does not mean that an eligibility assessment will be complete within one business day, or that a cheque will be issued.” Ms. Stilwell noted the ministry provides short-term resources if an appointment isn’t immediately available.

Ms. Stilwell said the ministry has also made it easier to apply for welfare by offering a toll-free phone number and moving applications online, which she said gives front-line staff more time to deal with people who need extra help.

At a minimum, the ministry should have assisted me to meet my immediate needs by providing me with grocery vouchers or hardship assistance

In May, Mr. Shay filed a human-rights complaint against the ministry, alleging it did not provide him with any immediate assistance after he submitted his application, nor did it follow up to arrange an appointment. He also alleges the ministry discriminated against him for being deaf by failing to accommodate his communication needs with a sign-language interpreter on an urgent basis.

“At a minimum, the ministry should have assisted me to meet my immediate needs by providing me with grocery vouchers or hardship assistance,” Mr. Shay said in his complaint to the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal.

In 2009, the provincial ombudsperson at the time, Kim Carter, released a report concluding the ministry was not consistently providing intake interviews within one business day to people with immediate needs. The report showed it took an average of 1.4 days to schedule assessment appointments in 2007 and 1.6 days in 2008.

The ministry said it accepted the report’s recommendation to better comply with its policy to provide appointments within one day, but that hasn’t happened yet. In a status report on the ombudsperson’s website, the ministry says it has been “identifying improvement opportunities.”

Advocates, however, say delays for appointments are getting worse.

“I don’t know the last time I’ve ever heard of an immediate needs assessment being done in a day,” said Didi Dufresne, a legal advocate at First United Church.

“It’s more like a week to two weeks, to potentially three weeks.”

Amber Prince, an advocate at Atira Women’s Resource Society, said it’s often difficult for her clients to speak with someone at the ministry at all, further putting off emergency assistance.

“We’ve had times where our calls have been disconnected.” she said. “They face so many barriers to even … get to even speak to someone that they’re really going to fall through the cracks.”

Welfare ministry fails to recognize access problems exist

Erin Pritchard & Lobat Sadrehashemi | The Vancouver Sun

Link to original article

BCPIAC filed a complaint to the BC Ombudsperson on May 12, 2015 on behalf of nine community service agencies across the province, based on evidence that some of BC’s most vulnerable people are being denied access to basic welfare services.

The government’s response was  that the Ministry always “looks at ways to improve welfare services.”

BCPIAC staff lawyers Erin Pritchard and Lobat Sadrehashemi wrote this op-ed for the Vancouver Sun highlighting the government’s refusal to address a problem exists in the first place.

It is difficult to work to improve something when you won’t accept there is even a problem.

We recently filed a complaint to the B.C. ombudsperson on behalf of nine community service agencies across the province, based on evidence that some of B.C.’s most vulnerable people are being denied access to basic welfare services.

Welfare Minister Michelle Stilwell commented within hours to the media that the government always “looks at ways to improve welfare services.”

But the government’s response suggests that, in the immediate term, the government will deny that the problem exists and take no meaningful action to fix it.

People are denied vital income supports because the system is designed in a way that is difficult for many people to access. Welfare services are now primarily delivered through a centralized phone line and over the Internet. The initial application for income assistance is more than 90 screens and must be done online, with no dedicated Ministry services available to assist applicants with its completion. Call centre waiting times are long, and when callers finally get through, the Ministry places limits on the length of the call. Just this week, a caller was told to try again later in the afternoon, as the Ministry’s system was down and staff were unable to locate individual files. Last week, an advocate reported waiting over 80 minutes on hold to get through the phone line.

All this together creates a grim picture for what it is like to have access to services at B.C.’s welfare ministry.

While local ministry offices still exist, face-to-face services have been dramatically reduced, resulting in long lines. Fourteen ministry offices have been closed completely since 2005, and in September, 11 more offices in the North and Interior reduced their hours each day to only 1-4 p.m. Two offices in the Downtown Eastside are only available for drop-in appointments for two hours each day.

All this together creates a grim picture for what it is like to have access to services at B.C.’s welfare ministry.

We filed our complaint because the ministry has built a system that disregards the needs, abilities and resources of income assistance recipients. It makes no sense to require people who often lack reliable access to phones and the Internet to obtain services through a call centre and online. Yet this is exactly what the ministry has done and what it is planning to continue to do.

Stilwell’s quick statement in response to our complaint strains credibility. First, she pointed out her ministry “meets with advocates to resolve issues of concern.” True, but it is at these meetings where advocates have repeatedly complained, in detail, about the barriers their clients face in trying to access ministry services. The government’s failure to act on these complaints is precisely what prompted the nine organizations across the province to file a systemic complaint with the ombudsperson.

Stilwell referred to feedback from clients indicating “a growing interest in services available over the phone or online.” What she omitted is that the last time the ministry solicited feedback on its methods of service, it only conducted its survey online, denying clients a paper copy of the survey even when they specifically asked for one. Despite this obvious design flaw that excluded people without Internet access, the majority of income assistance recipients that were able to complete the online survey still responded they preferred face-to-face services. Despite the clear results favouring face-to-face services, the ministry concluded it should move forward with offering more services online and over the phone.

Stilwell’s statements demonstrate how out of touch the government is both with the needs of the people that it has a legal duty to assist, and with what happens on a daily basis at ministry offices across the province.

Stilwell also claimed that urgent food and shelter needs are addressed within one business day, no matter how clients contact the ministry. This is simply not happening. In our research with advocates across B.C., we heard repeatedly there were delays in providing assistance for people with urgent needs. If you design a system with long waiting times on the phone, lines at offices with limited hours, and offer no help with completing a required initial online application, it should come as no surprise your staff members have difficulty responding to those in crisis.

Stilwell’s statements demonstrate how out of touch the government is both with the needs of the people that it has a legal duty to assist, and with what happens on a daily basis at ministry offices across the province.

Mental health advocate Kris Sutherland was asked at our recent press conference what he would say to Stilwell if he had the opportunity to speak to her face-to-face. Sutherland quickly responded he would ask her to sit at his office for a week and see what his clients experience. We think this would be a great idea. Maybe the government would begin to acknowledge it has a problem, which they need to do before they can fix it.

Erin Pritchard and Lobat Sadrehashemi are staff lawyers with the B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre.

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

BC Residents Living in Poverty Deserve Accountability

On May 12, 2015 BCPIAC filed a complaint to the BC Ombudsperson on behalf of nine community service agencies across the province, based on evidence that some of BC’s most vulnerable people are being denied access to basic welfare services.

access-denied-meme-draft1-1024x768 BC Residents Living in Poverty Deserve AccountabilityFourteen Ministry offices have been closed completely since 2005, and in September 2014, 11 more offices in the North and Interior reduced their hours to only three hours per day, from 1pm to 4pm. Two offices in the Downtown Eastside are only available for drop-in appointments for two hours each day.

Call centre wait times are long, and when callers finally get through, the Ministry places limits on the length of the call. The initial application for income assistance is more than 90 screens and must be done online, with no dedicated Ministry services available to assist applicants with its completion.

Online welfare system a barrier: advocate

May 13, 2015 | Stefania Seccia | 24 HOURS

Link to original article

Nine groups filed an official complaint with the B.C. ombudsperson Tuesday over allegations that the government has slashed access to welfare despite claiming enhanced services.

Over the last five years, the Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation has made radical changes to how it delivers services – more online and on the phone – that has resulted in barriers, according to the 40-page complaint filed by nine social service agencies by the BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre.

Since 2005, 14 ministry offices have closed, and 11 out of 82 have reduced the times they’re open to three hours a day.

“The B.C. government needs to be held accountable for its unfair treatment and the ministry needs to design services so it serves the very people it’s supposed to,” said Lobat Sadrehashemi, staff lawyer with the advocacy centre.

Amber Prince, Atira Women’s Resource Society’s legal advocate, said getting access in person is “severely restricted,” and many women tell her about waiting outside the ministry office in the rain.

When she helps women with a call it’s usually a long wait – up to 30 minutes – and for women without phones, computers, and fleeing violence, it’s a “huge barrier.”

“Recently, a woman said to me in tears while we were on hold, ‘Remember the days when you could speak to an actual person?” she said.

But Minister Michelle Stilwell, of social development, defended her ministry’s actions towards centralizing the service online and on the phone.

“Feedback from ministry clients indicates a growing interest in services available over the phone and online,” she said in a statement to 24 hours. “That in turn means that frontline staff has more time to help those who need extra assistance.

“In person or face-to-face services will always be available to clients who require it, as well as outreach services for the most vulnerable.”

Stilwell said the ministry meets regularly with advocates “to maintain open communication on our services for clients and work to resolve issues of concern.”

The ministry also works closely with the ombudsperson to resolve client concerns, “and looks forward to continuing to do so,” she added.

But Sadrehashemi noted that back in October, the ministry had an online survey asking clients to evaluate how they wanted services provided, and many preferred face-to-face services.

Welfare office reductions prompts complaint to BC Ombudsperson

May 13, 2015 | The Early Edition, CBC News

Link to original article

Listen to the full audio interview with Lobat Sadrehashemi.

The B.C. government is making it harder for vulnerable people to access income-assistance according to nine community organizations who’ve filed a complaint with the BC Ombudsperson.

The organizations, which include the Kettle Society and Atira Women’s Resource Society in Vancouver, argue the province has shut down or reduced the hours of many welfare services offices across the province, making it more difficult for people to speak to staff in person.

At it’s core, it’s really about vulnerable people effectively being shut out by welfare services

Lobat Sadrehashemi, BCPIAC staff lawyer

“At it’s core, it’s really about vulnerable people effectively being shut out by welfare services,” said Lobat Sadrehashemi, a lawyer with the B.C Public Interest Advocacy Centre which is representing the agencies.

“Not because of any change in the law or because they’ve been explicitly excluded, but simply because of the way the welfare ministry has decided to design its services.”

Shift in services

Over the last few years the Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation has shifted the way it provides its services to relying more on call centres and encouraging people seeking welfare services to apply by phone or online.

But many low income people don’t have reliable access to either, Sadrehashemi said.

“The organizations we represent have repeatedly raised these concerns with the Ministry,” said Sadrehashemi. “It’s fallen on deaf ears.”

Since 2005, the Ministry has closed 14 offices and reduced operating hours at others — 11 offices located in northern  B.C. and the southern interior are now only open three hours a day.

B.C government says changes reflect feedback

In a statement emailed to the CBC, Minister of Social Development and Social Innovation Michelle Stilwell acknowledges it may be challenging for many low income individuals and families to access modern technology, but feedback from ministry clients indicates a growing interest in services available over the phone and online.

The ministry argues it provides more flexibility on how, when and where people access services.

“In person or face to face services will always be available to clients who require it, as well as outreach services for the most vulnerable,” said Stilwell. “If people have an urgent need — no matter how they contact us — help is immediately offered”

But Sadrehashemi says it’s not enough to create greater access online while reducing access to staff face-to-face. She hopes the ombudsperson will recommend systemic change.

“Ultimately this is not an individual issue, it’s the way the entire system is designed is shutting out people.”

B.C. ombudsman asked to look into welfare access

May 12, 2015 | Mike Hager | The Globe & Mail

Link to original article

Two weeks ago, Brant Cechanek went to the local welfare office to apply for a small lump-sum payment that would allow him to buy a mini-fridge and a microwave to help the laid-off oil sands worker eat healthier and stretch his meagre food budget.

He said he was told to call the Social Development and Social Innovation Ministry’s central hotline after lining up at a Downtown Eastside office for about half an hour to see a drop-in social worker during the one-hour window scheduled for such visits twice each day. He phoned the hotline, was told he would get a call back in five days, but he said that call never came. After phoning the ministry number again, he was denied the $150.

Mr. Cechanek said he is convinced that if he could plead his case face-to-face with a social worker he could get the payment, as a friend and neighbour at his run down single-rent occupancy hotel did weeks earlier with an outreach advocate at his side.

Many people on social assistance are homeless or live in unstable housing and do not own a phone or computer or have easy access to the Internet

“We’re just a voice, we’re nobody to them on the other line,” Mr. Cechanek said in an interview on Tuesday. “We’re not drug addicts, we’re not junkies, we’re just stuck in between a rock and a hard place right now.”

Mr. Cechanek’s problems getting services echo those laid out in a new complaint by a group representing nine non-profit organizations across the province. The BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC), a not-for-profit law firm, issued a report at a news conference on Tuesday morning and has asked B.C.’s Ombudsperson to investigate systemic issues it says are caused by the ministry’s “radical changes” over the past five years. Those changes include pushing social-payment recipients toward phone or online interactions and closing 14 offices and cutting hours at another 11.

Many people on social assistance are homeless or live in unstable housing and do not own a phone or computer or have easy access to the Internet, PIAC lawyer Lobat Sadrehashemi told reporters on Tuesday.

Some, like Mr. Cechanek, waste valuable time on their pay-as-you-go mobile phone plan waiting 20 minutes or more on the centralized ministry hotline to speak to staff who are under pressure to keep calls short because of backlogs, Ms. Sadrehashemi added.

On top of that, new social-assistance applications must be done online, are offered in English only and are complicated, asking for information on applicant’s assets, work history and immigration status, the complaint alleges. Some people have experienced substantial delays in getting their first social assistance or disability cheque because of this online system, the complaint also alleges.

“At its core, this complaint really is about how welfare services are not being designed with their users in mind,” Ms. Sadrehashemi said.

Minister Michelle Stilwell acknowledged on Tuesday it can be challenging for “many low-income individuals and families to access modern technology, or perhaps maybe they’re just not comfortable with doing that.”

But she said the push to provide service via the centralized hotline and online gives front-line staff more time to serve people face-to-face. She said she is only aware of long lineups at social-assistance offices on the days cheques are issued.

She said the average wait on the social-assistance hotline is less than 10 minutes. Last December, it was more than half an hour, according to the ministry data obtained by the PIAC. Ms. Stilwell said those long waits were due to “problems with the network” that have been rectified.

Ombudsperson Kim Carter said her office will review the complaint and determine whether it is a systemic issue that merits a report, which could take up to three years. She added that, year after year, the largest number of complaints to her office are lodged against the ministry overseeing welfare (about 19 per cent of files in the 2013 fiscal year). That’s in part because welfare recipients “are people who often don’t have other places to turn,” she said.

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.