Release: They didn’t stop us: Legal aid constitutional challenge going full steam ahead
VANCOUVER – Today, the Supreme Court of British Columbia ruled that West Coast LEAF’s case seeking to increase access to justice for women and others fleeing abuse or violent relationships can go ahead. The rights group brought the case in 2017, arguing that the Provincial government and the Legal Services Society (“LSS”) have failed to provide adequate family law legal aid for these individuals. The government tried to have the case thrown out as not deserving of even a hearing. Today, the court ruled in no uncertain terms that the case can go ahead as intended.
West Coast LEAF is representing the Centre for Family Equity, formerly Single Mothers’ Alliance of BC (SMA), a grass-roots organization working on improving access to justice and Nicole Bell, an individual whose safety, well-being, and relationships with her children have been threatened by the lack of legal aid services available to her in her family law case. Today’s decision means that they will finally get their day in court.
This case alleges that the Province has a constitutional responsibility under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to provide access to the justice system for women and others impacted by gender-based discrimination, who are fleeing violent relationships or dealing with ongoing situations of abuse from ex-spouses.
In BC, legal aid services in family law are drastically underfunded, having been cut by 60% between 2002 and 2005. Family legal aid is often denied because a situation is deemed not violent enough, or because people working full time at minimum wage are still not seen as needing legal aid. This leaves many British Columbians going through divorce and custody battles without a lawyer, having to self-represent and perhaps face their abuser directly in court, even in situations of extreme family violence.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. Without legal aid, women and others facing gendered discrimination are at risk of losing their safety, their children, their home, food, medical treatment for their children, and other basic necessities. This is especially harmful for those experiencing gendered discrimination who are also Indigenous, face language barriers, or have disabilities.
“We are very pleased that this important case can move ahead as planned. We know that the impacts of decades of funding cuts to BC’s legal aid system are severe. We look forward to proving that the current state of family law legal aid in BC violates people’s rights,” said Raji Mangat, Director of Litigation at West Coast LEAF. “Safety and equality should not be reserved for only those who can afford a lawyer. Today’s ruling means that we will have the opportunity to hold the government accountable for its failure to provide adequate legal aid.”
“After months of anticipation, I am relieved and beyond thrilled to learn that we are going to trial and that we will have a fair chance to plead our case in court,” said plaintiff Nicole Bell. “On behalf of all vulnerable families who require legal protections, this decision gives me hope that the legal aid regime will one day be transformed, free from discrimination and oppression.”
Raji Mangat, Director of Litigation and co-counsel
West Coast LEAF
604-684-8772, ext. 218