BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre (BCPIAC) is a not-for-profit law office located in Vancouver, Coast Salish Territories. Our mission is to promote equality, fairness and social inclusion by providing legal representation on systemic social and policy issues. Our current areas of focus are improving access to welfare and legal aid, addressing energy poverty and the cost of utility services, and legal issues arising at the intersection of racial discrimination and insecure legal status.
A person lives in energy poverty when they are unable to afford the energy services needed to meet their reasonable daily needs. Since the early 1980s, BCPIAC has been working with the Provincial Ministry of Energy, BC’s major utility companies, and the BC Utilities Commission to ensure the perspective of low income residential utility customers is included in everything from policy formulation to project specific decisions. BCPIAC also uses its expertise in utility regulation to address systemic issues arising with utility services. Some of the things BCPIAC advocates for are:
- Preferential rates for low income and/or low use utility customers
- Demand Side Management programs that do not require the customer to make a financial contribution
- Reduced fees for services used disproportionately by low income people, such as reconnection fees
- Programs that promote low rates and rate stability
BCPIAC recognizes that reductions to legal aid funding and the consequent lack of access to legal advice, lawyers, courts and tribunals is a significant issue for low and middle-income British Columbians. Consequently, we have developed a multi-prong strategy for addressing this issue:
- Expand the range of cases where there is a right to state funded counsel by seeking coverage for family law cases involving custody, immigration cases involving potential deportation, or welfare cases involving potentially draconian consequences, such as homelessness or hunger.
- Challenging the propriety of the financial threshold in cases where a person exceeds the income threshold, but cannot afford a lawyer. We seek to do this in child protection or criminal cases where the right to state funded counsel is otherwise recognized.
- Challenge the reasonableness of coverage denials in specific cases where the right to state funded counsel is generally recognized. If you have been wrongly denied legal aid coverage, let us know.
Through our Access to Welfare focus area we work to address three main issues:
- Service Delivery and Service Quality: The Ministry’s increasing use of technology and centralized services has made it difficult for BC’s most vulnerable residents to access the welfare system. For those who do manage to gain access, poor service quality makes it an unnecessarily harsh and degrading experience. BCPIAC is working to address the barriers created by the centralization and techologization of the welfare system, as well as the demoralizing way service is provided to system users.
- Immediate Needs Assessments – Although legislation and Ministry policy state that applicants with an immediate need for food, shelter or medical attention should be assessed on an urgent basis, this often does not happen. BCPIAC is working to challenge delays in assessing applicants with an immediate need for welfare services.
- Spouse in the House – income assistance recipients are deemed to be spouses after three months in a common law relationship. When this happens, their benefits are reduced to reflect what are assumed to be the shared living expenses of a “family unit”. The three-month timeline is very much at odds with most provincial legislation which allows people to live together for two years before they are deemed to be spouses. The Ministry also often incorrectly deems people to be spouses when they are merely roommates or where one party is a live-in caregiver.
Through our focus on issues arising at the intersection of racial discrimination and insecure legal status, we seek to address discriminatory practices primarily in the areas of employment and access to social services. Examples of our work in this area include:
- Employment insurance, employment standards and human rights challenges on behalf of a group of African refugees, a groups of Mexican temporary foreign workers, and a group of recent immigrants from China, all of whom were working in Canada in substandard conditions;
- A challenge to the introduction of conditional permanent residence for sponsored spouses that requires some sponsored spouses to cohabit in a conjugal relationship with their spouse for two years in order to maintain their permanent residence status.
- Advocacy on provisions in the budget bill (Bill C-43) that may result in restrictions to refugee claimants’ access to welfare benefits (also related to welfare priority area).
- Developing a challenge to the lack of timely interpretation services provided to people accessing social assistance through MSDSI (also related to welfare priority area).