Single Mothers’ Alliance v BC: Taking the fight for family law legal aid to court [2017]

Five lawyers from West Coast LEAF and the Centre for Family Equity stand in front of the BC Law Courts.

Huge victory for single mothers!

On February 15, 2024, West Coast LEAF, representing the plaintiff Centre for Family Equity (formerly known as the Single Mothers’ Alliance), reached a settlement with the Province of BC and Legal Aid BC (LABC) after a nearly seven-year constitutional challenge. Finally, lone parents navigating family violence will get more of the legal aid services they urgently need.

More than 20 years ago, the provincial government cut legal aid funding for family law by 60%. This meant that survivors of family violence, who are overwhelmingly women and often single mothers, faced far too many barriers to escaping abuse and vindicating their rights in family law cases that dragged on and on, becoming more complex and difficult over time. 

This milestone is the result of years-long persistence in a belief that people navigating the family justice system while at their most vulnerable should not be left alone without legal support. West Coast LEAF started this case in 2017 in partnership with Centre for Family Equity (CFE), two courageous and remarkable individual plaintiffs, and countless others behind the scenes who have been steadfast in their vision for an equitable, safe, and accessible justice system for those leaving family violence.   

The settlement from this case will replace a one-size-fits-all model of family law legal aid with robust, multidimensional, and sustained services. The solutions offered by this exciting new tier of services will make the family law legal aid system more responsive to the on-the-ground realities of survivors and better able to meet survivors’ complex legal needs.

This outcome shows us a new way forward for family law legal services, but it also highlights the impact of collective action. Advocacy efforts–including litigation–can be important strategies for seeking meaningful change and improving outcomes for people in our province. When we come together in support of those whose needs are not being met, we help create a more equitable society for all. 

What legal aid means for families

When people fleeing relationship violence don’t have a lawyer to represent them in their family law dispute, conflict with an abusive ex can be drawn out and intensified, often resulting in unfair outcomes or survivors giving up on the legal system. Violence can escalate, endangering survivors and their children, and they may even lose custody or worse, lose their lives. 

Often, abuse doesn’t end when a relationship is over. In fact, one of the methods that abusive ex-partners will use to continue to threaten and intimidate is the court system itself. There can be a huge power imbalance in family law cases: One person is represented by experienced counsel, while the other is self-representing and trying to navigate a complex system with little knowledge or support.

This scenario has been all too common in BC. Until now, three out of every five applications for family law legal aid representation were denied.

Access to family law legal aid was highly restricted. First, it was generally limited to those who were recognized as needing an immediate court order to ensure their own or their children’s safety. Second, financial eligibility was based on extremely low income and asset requirements. This excluded a huge number of people who cannot afford a lawyer, including many minimum wage earners, even if their circumstances would otherwise be covered by legal aid. As a result, some people were forced to cash out even modest savings (like an RRSP) and thus be pushed into greater poverty to become eligible.

Even when people did qualify for help from a legal aid lawyer, the hours their lawyer could spend preparing for the case were capped at such a low number that many of their legal needs went unmet. There remains a significant shortfall to come back from, but this new investment is a huge step in the right direction. This initiative will provide a historic level of access to legal aid for single mothers who often struggle to navigate the family law system on their own.

Read more about West Coast LEAF’s decades of work toward access to justice, and our legal aid advocacy spanning more than 20 years.

The settlement includes a government investment of $29.1 million over the next three years to create new multidisciplinary, trauma-informed family law clinics while simultaneously expanding the rigid eligibility requirements that have created barriers to accessing family law legal aid.

The new family law clinic model will offer in-person and virtual services, and eligible clients will receive the legal representation and related services necessary to meaningfully stabilize their legal situation. The clinic is expected to open before the end of this year. Until then, new clients, who would be eligible for clinic services once in operation, can access an additional 25 hours of legal aid services. LABC will draw on community engagement and the expertise of other organizations in the sector to develop and implement operations at the clinic, with CFE and West Coast LEAF there every step of the way.

Single Mothers’ Alliance v BC was a constitutional challenge against the Province of BC and LABC for failing to provide adequate family law legal aid to women leaving abusive relationships. The case, launched in April 2017, alleged that BC has a constitutional responsibility under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to ensure access to the family law system for women who are fleeing violent relationships or are facing ongoing abuse from ex-spouses. CFE argued that BC’s legal aid system violates women’s constitutionally protected rights to equality, life and security of the person, and access to justice by increasing their risk of exposure to violence.

When the case was launched, CFE was joined by two co-plaintiffs with lived experiences of the family law legal aid system. These individuals bravely shared their stories of abuse and inadequate access to justice to help improve access to legal aid for all survivors of violence. While each had to withdraw from what turned into complex and multi-year litigation, their stories helped to shape the case and we’re grateful for their participation.

The BC government twice sought to stop the case from proceeding to trial.

In 2018, the Province and LSS (now LABC) applied to the court to strike out the claims in whole (the Province) or in part (LABC). The Province argued that the claims were doomed to fail in their entirety. LABC argued that some of the remedies in the case were unavailable and should be struck out. On August 23, 2019, the BC Supreme Court ruled in no uncertain terms that the case could go ahead as intended.

In early 2022, the Province brought a court application challenging CFE’s ability to continue the litigation on its own without individual single mothers as co-plaintiffs. Courts have long recognized the problem of unequal access to justice and allow organizations like CFE to bring legal challenges on behalf of directly affected people in certain circumstances. In these cases, organizations have what is called “public interest standing.” In December 2022, the BC Supreme Court granted CFE public interest standing. The court confirmed the importance of allowing public interest organizations to challenge unjust laws on behalf of community members so that people fleeing violence are not forced to carry this enormous burden by themselves.

This success is the result of the tireless work of so many people, including two co-plaintiffs with lived experience of the family law legal aid system who bravely shared their stories of abuse and inadequate access to justice. To the members of CFE and lone mothers across the province-this case would not have been possible without you.

We are incredibly grateful to pro bono counsel for their unwavering support of this work, including lead counsel Monique Pongracic-Speier and Gita Keshava at Ethos Law who contributed thousands of hours towards this case. There are many, many others behind the scenes – pro bono counsel Robyn Trask, Anita Ghatak, Maegen Giltrow, and many others.

Thank you to everyone who has supported our work on access to justice. There is much work still to be done as we seek to build on this win for lone mothers in the coming years, and we hope you’ll be there with us.

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