Single mothers sue B.C. government over access to legal aid after drastic cuts

Click to play video: 'B.C. legal aid cuts hurt women leaving abusive relationships'
B.C. legal aid cuts hurt women leaving abusive relationships
WATCH: A local advocacy group is challenging the provincial government in court. They say funding cuts to legal aid have made it very difficult for woman who are struggling to protect themselves and their children after leaving abusive relationships. Catherine Urquhart reports – Apr 28, 2017

An organization fighting for the rights of single mothers in B.C. has launched a petition to the B.C. Supreme Court over access to legal aid.

The Single Mothers’ Alliance of B.C. says the province has been cutting access to legal aid since 2002: a policy they say has disproportionately affected single mothers, women and children.

The organization reports that between 2001 and 2015, B.C. has cut the number of approved family law cases for legal aid from 15, 526 to 3,442.

The cuts mean  that single mothers or victims of abuse must be in extreme poverty in order to access legal aid, lawyer Kasari Govender said. Legal aid is typically provided by the government to people who cannot afford a lawyer.

Nicolina Bell is one of two plaintiffs in the joint constitutional challenge against the province and the Legal Services Society.

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“After my daughter was born, my ex threatened to kill me and kidnap her from the NICU at the hospital,” she told Global News.

After she escaped that relationship, Bell faced a legal battle with her ex. She was denied legal aid despite little income or assets,

“The hardest part was that when I filed for custody of my daughter and protection order, I didn’t have counsel at the time, and he counter-claimed me through counsel,” Bell said.

Kate Feeney, a lawyer at the BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre, says family law legal aid had its budget cut by 60 per cent after the B.C. government implemented across-the-board cuts to legal aid in 2002.

“More and more women are having to self-represent in court against men who they are escaping violence from,” Raji Mangat, director of litigation at West Coast LEAF, an organization that uses law to further women’s equality, said.

Govender said this isn’t a budget decision, but an issue of constitutional rights.

“One of our plaintiffs in this case has received numerous death threats,” Govender said. “Her ex has been charged and pled guilty to uttering threats against her in a context that resulted in an entire maternity ward being shut down. These are really, really serious situations, and she has been denied legal aid.”

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While the legal aid challenge might not be heard in court until 2019, Bell says she’ll stick it out in order to help others.

“If I can use my voice and my experience to help and be an advocate for change for other women and children in this province, then it makes everything that I’ve gone through worth it,” Bell said.

With files from Catherine Urquhart and Kyle Benning (CKNW)

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