Release: Legal aid case must proceed despite the government’s attempt to stop it

VANCOUVER – West Coast LEAF has filed a response to the Province’s and the Legal Services Society’s efforts to bring our case challenging BC’s family law legal aid regime  to an end.

Last year, West Coast LEAF sued the BC government and the Legal Services Society (“LSS) for the harms caused by BC’s family law legal aid regime to women leaving abusive relationships or facing ongoing abuse from ex-partners. The case is brought on behalf of the Single Mothers’ Alliance and an individual plaintiff, Nicole Bell. The constitutional challenge is focused on how the impact of the law limits women’s access to the courts in discriminatory and arbitrary ways, unjustifiably infringing their equality rights and the right to life and security of the person under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The trial is scheduled to begin on February 18, 2020. Early this fall, the Province and the LSS made applications to the court seeking to strike all or parts of the case.

“The BC government is fighting to strike the entire claim, arguing that the case has no reasonable prospect of success,” explains Raji Mangat, co-counsel and West Coast LEAF’s Director of Litigation. “They’re asking the court to throw the whole case out before it even gets to trial, depriving our clients of the opportunity to have their day in court. The Legal Services Society is asking the court to strike out parts of the claim, including a remedy that would require LSS to determine family law legal aid coverage in a fair, just, and constitutionally compliant way.”

Mangat adds: “The plaintiffs have brought this case because of the insurmountable and serious barriers they face in accessing justice. If the Province succeeds in their application, the plaintiffs and those they represent will once again be deprived of their rights to safety and an equitable resolution of their family law matters.”

“On behalf of our courageous clients, Single Mothers’ Alliance and Nicole Bell, we strongly oppose the applications to strike,” says Kasari Govender, co-counsel and Executive Director of West Coast LEAF. “We are challenging the argument that there is no reasonable prospect of success – quite the opposite. We know that BC’s current legal aid scheme discriminates against women and children and violates their rights by increasing their risk of experiencing violence and intense stress, and we are fighting for a chance to prove this in court.”

Govender adds: “Access to legal services can mean the difference between a woman staying in an abusive relationship or being able to leave. This should not be a privilege reserved for only those who can afford a lawyer. We believe it’s time for the Province and LSS to fulfil their obligations to women and children in BC.”

“Since announcing the launch of the constitutional challenge, many women have come forward and disclosed their experiences with family violence to me,” says plaintiff Nicole Bell. “These women are from all walks of life and it is heart-wrenching to learn how prevalent violence against women and children truly is. Most of these women have told me how the legal aid regime and family court system has failed them.”

Bell adds: “Having the Province and the Legal Services Society simply undermine and dismiss the harms I and others have experienced by BC’s family law legal aid regime only exemplifies the need for systemic change in British Columbia. Discrimination and inequality against women and children within the law needs to stop!”

For more information about the case, see our case page.