Open Letter Regarding Access Barriers to Applying for Income Assistance

To All Candidates in the 2017 BC Provincial Election:

Re:     Access Barriers to Applying for Income Assistance

We are writing to you as a candidate in the provincial election on behalf of more than sixty undersigned organizations to collectively express our concerns regarding chronic and serious barriers British Columbians face when attempting to apply for income assistance. It is our hope that you will pursue this issue, as it affects British Columbians in all corners of the province.

Barriers to accessing income assistance have been steadily worsening over the past several years as the Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation (the “Ministry”) has increasingly moved to online application processes. This has been coupled with a corresponding reduction in the number of Ministry staff available to provide in person or over the phone assistance to those citizens applying for income assistance. By way of example, fourteen Ministry offices have closed across the province since 2005, while other offices have reduced hours or have been replaced by generic ServiceBC offices. This under resourcing of the Ministry coupled with its insistence on an increasingly technological interaction with the public has led to the entirely foreseeable consequence of downloading much of the responsibility to provide accessible services onto community agencies, such as those signing this letter.

The latest iteration of the online application process creates new and substantial barriers for those who either do not have access to a computer or lack the computer literacy necessary to navigate the online processes. Now, before someone can even apply for assistance, they must complete the following steps:

  • Create an email address (if applicant does not have one, which is the case for many older and/or more vulnerable applicants);
  • Create a My Self Serve account, and wait for an email confirmation link;
  • Create a 4-digit PIN;
  • Create a BCeID user ID and password to log into My Self Serve account;

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. With permission from the authors, we share the following excerpts:

“The new application process simply doesn’t work for many that need to access income assistance. I recently met with a client who is homeless and does not have a computer – the Ministry told him he was ineligible for in-person intake because our organization could assist him instead.  This is despite the fact that our organization does not generally assist with the application process because we view it as the Ministry’s job to assist, and because it is so cumbersome and time-consuming.  My client nearly gave up applying for income assistance at multiple points, despite being eligible, and I know there are many people who, because they cannot navigate the bureaucratic and technological hurdles, simply give up on the meager support available. In-person assistance is the only method that actually works for the majority of people who need these services.”

-Daniel Jackson, Legal Advocate, Together Against Poverty Society, Victoria

 

“…[I] had a horrible experience with the new on-line system. I was assisting a client a day or 2 after the new system was launched.  Trying to register the client and set up her [My Self Serve] account was a nightmare.  Her appointment ended up being a 2-part appointment b/c we had to wait for her registration number.  The 2nd appointment we completed the on-line application which in my opinion was not ‘streamlined’, efficient or ‘more user-friendly’.  At that time we were unable to download the documents for the application and the client had to physically take them into the office.

-Christine Dunlop, Legal Advocate, Quesnel Tillicum Society, Native Friendship Centre, Quesnel

Our overarching message is that many applicants require in person assistance with the application process – and this help is simply not being provided. Despite repeated assurances that there is now a “supported application” whereby applicants unable to use the online application can contact the Ministry to request telephone intake, there is a complete disconnect between these assurances and the actual experiences of British Columbians attempting to access direct help from the Ministry. In person services are not being provided and wait times on the Ministry’s centralized phone line have averaged over 45 minutes over the past six months.

We ask that all candidates commit to speaking out in favour of making income assistance accessible to those that need it by:

  • Providing timely in person individualized assistance to those that need it
  • Providing computers and Ministry staff at every Ministry office for the purposes of helping applicants through the application process
  • Modifying the online application to eliminate the requirement for an email address and BCeID

We are calling for action in the form of fully resourcing the Ministry to fulfill its duty to the citizens of British Columbia.

Sincerely,

BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre

Erin Pritchard & Michael Seaborn
Staff Lawyers

c.  Jay Chalke, BC Ombudsperson

Signatories:

  1. Abbotsford Community Services (Abbotsford)
  2. Action Committee of People with Disabilities (Victoria)
  3. Active Support Against Poverty (Prince George)
  4. Africa Great Lakes Networking Foundation (Vancouver)
  5. The Anglican Diocese of New Westminster Eco-Justice Unit (New Westminster)
  6. Atira Women’s Resource Society (Vancouver)
  7. Battered Women’s Support Services (Vancouver)
  8. BC Government and Service Employees’ Union
  9. BC Health Coalition
  10. BC Poverty Reduction Coalition
  11. Burnaby Community Services (Burnaby)
  12. Canadian Mental Health Association (Port Alberni)
  13. Carnegie Community Action Project (Vancouver)
  14. Carnegie Community Centre Association (Vancouver)
  15. Chimo Community Services (Richmond)
  16. Citizens for Accessible Neighbourhoods (Vancouver)
  17. Coalition of Child Care Advocates of BC
  18. Community Legal Assistance Society (Vancouver)
  19. Council of Senior Citizen Organizations in British Columbia
  20. Dawson Creek Native Housing Society (Dawson Creek)
  21. Disability Alliance BC
  22. Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House (Vancouver)
  23. Downtown Eastside SRO Collaborative (Vancouver)
  24. Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre (Vancouver)
  25. Family Tree Family Centre (Kamloops)
  26. First Call: BC Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition
  27. First United Church Community Ministry Society (Vancouver)
  28. Fort St. John Women’s Resource Society (Fort St. John)
  29. Golden Family Center (Golden)
  30. Golden Women’s Resource Centre (Golden)
  31. Gordon Neighbourhood House (Vancouver)
  32. Greater Vancouver Food Bank (Vancouver)
  33. Interior Community Services (Kamloops)
  34. Kamloops and District Elizabeth Fry Society (Kamloops)
  35. Kamloops YMCA-YWCA, Violence Against Women Intervention and Support Services (Kamloops)
  36. The Kettle Society Advocacy Service (Vancouver)
  37. Megaphone Magazine (Vancouver)
  38. MS Society of Canada, BC & Yukon Division (Burnaby)
  39. Nelson CARES – The Advocacy Centre (Nelson)
  40. The Nelson Committee on Homelessness (Nelson)
  41. New Westminster & District Labour Council (New Westminster)
  42. Nicola Valley Advocacy Centre (Merritt)
  43. North Shore Community Resources (North Vancouver)
  44. North Shore Homelessness Task Force (North Shore)
  45. Okanagan Advocacy and Resource Society (Vernon)
  46. Opportunities Advocacy Services (Campbell River)
  47. Penticton and Area Access Society (Penticton)
  48. Phoenix Centre (Kamloops)
  49. Pivot Legal Society (Vancouver)
  50. Prince Rupert Unemployed Action Centre (Prince Rupert)
  51. Quesnel Tillicum Society, Native Friendship Centre (Quesnel)
  52. Raise the Rates (Vancouver)
  53. The Realistic Success Recovery Society (Surrey)
  54. Sheila Nelson (Kamloops)
  55. South Peace Community Resources Society (Dawson Creek)
  56. STEPS Forward – Inclusive Post-Secondary Education Society (Vancouver)
  57. Paul’s Advocacy Office at St. Paul’s Anglican Church (Vancouver)
  58. Terrace and District Community Services Society (Terrace)
  59. Together Against Poverty Society (Victoria)
  60. 59. Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter (Vancouver)
  61. Vancouver South Presbytery Community Advocacy Programme (United Church of Canada) (Vancouver)
  62. Wachiay Friendship Centre (Courtenay)
  63. West Coast LEAF (Vancouver)
  64. Vancouver District Labour Council (Vancouver)
  65. Vancouver Island Human Rights Coalition (Victoria)
  66. Victoria Disability Resource Centre (Victoria)

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.”

B.C.’s Islamophobia hotline responds to recent events in U.S. and Canada

January 31, 2017 | Nathan Hutton |  Global News
Link to original article

B.C.’s Islamophobia Legal Assistance Hotline is calling the recent attack at a Quebec City mosque, which left six dead, a “despicable act of terrorism.”

Hasan Alam, a community liaison for the hotline spoke harshly about Islamophobia in Canada, “These tragic killings are a harsh reminder of the fact that Islamophobia exists here in Canada, and Muslim Canadians are unfortunately often victims of it.”

Alam was joined on Tuesday in his condemnation of the attack by the president of the Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers in B.C., David Namkung.

“The attack is a reminder that our country may be more progressive on many issues [than Americans] but we as Canadians are not immune from hate crimes and discrimination,” Namkung said.

Lawyers from legal groups, who launched the hotline last March, responded to the Quebec City attack, and the White House immigration orders temporarily banning passport holders in seven Muslim-majority countries from entry into the United States.

“We want to take this opportunity to add our voice as the B.C. Civil Liberties Association to the growing chorus of calls on the Canadian government to take action in light of what is happening in the United States,” said Laura Track, a staff lawyer with the association. “It’s important to remember that a refugee is someone who is unable to continue to live in safety where he or she is, due to the dangers of war, of generalized violence, or serious civil disturbance. Fleeing or seeking asylum is the only realistic option for these people and their families.”

Track went on to speak out against the Safe Third Country agreement, which states refugee claimants are required to request refugee protection in the first safe country they arrive in,  currently in place between the Canadian and American governments. The agreement currently prevents refugees from seeking asylum in Canada after being refused entry by the United States immigration.

Alam also touched on what he calls the increasing Islamophobic and Xenophobic rhetoric presented by the Trump administration in the United States and even during the last Canadian federal election, “During the last federal election a divisive form of Islamophobic rhetoric was used to single out Muslim Canadians as being a threat. In the present, Canadians are being further exposed to a similar but more extreme form of Islamophobic or Xenophobic rhetoric from the Trump administration in the United States.”

The hotline was started last March after a nationwide increase in the number of reported incidents related to racial and faith discrimination against Muslims. The hotline connects individuals with others who have also experienced discrimination.

© 2017 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

BC Hydro regulator to issue decision on rates for BC’s poor

Media Advisory

The BC Utilities Commission, which regulates the province’s electricity rates, has announced it will issue its decision in BC Hydro’s rate review process on Friday, January 20, 2017.

In its decision, the Commission will determine rate structures and conditions of service for BC Hydro’s residential, business and industrial customers.

The BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre (BCPIAC) is seeking an order that BC Hydro implement programs for low income residential customers including a discounted rate for electricity, low income customer rules, and a crisis intervention fund.

BCPIAC is seeking these programs because low income customers are struggling to pay BC Hydro’s continuously increasing electricity rates, with over 30,000 ratepayers facing disconnection every year.

BC Hydro rates have risen 51 per cent over the last 11 years and are on track to rise an additional 30 per cent over the next eight years.

Following release of the decision, BCPIAC staff lawyer Erin Pritchard can be reached for comment: 604-687-3063.