Advocates for those fleeing family violence in B.C. are decrying what they describe as a government attempt to drive them “right off the road” in a constitutional challenge.
According to the West Coast Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF), the province is arguing that the Single Mothers’ Alliance, a group of volunteers, should not have standing in the court case, as it does not have the legal capacity to take it to trial.
“Women are at great risk of further violence from an abusive ex when they make the crucial and life-changing decision to leave and seek safety, but too many are left without legal aid support at a time when the risk of violence and harassment is heightened,” said West Coast LEAF director Raji Mangat at a rally outside BC Supreme Court in Vancouver on Tuesday.
“Instead of facing the claims at trial, the province is dragging us to court today and over the next few days to waste our time, waste the court’s time, and public resources.”
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The Single Mothers’ Alliance launched the constitutional case in 2017, alleging eligibility for legal aid in B.C. does not meet the needs of low-income women, especially those escaping domestic violence. The provincial government and Legal Aid BC, then known as the Legal Services Society, failed in their responsibility to ensure those women have access to the justice system, it claims.
West Coast LEAF is representing the grassroots group in the three-day hearing that began Tuesday.
Neither the attorney-general nor Legal Aid BC would comment on this story while the matter is before the courts.
Mangat said B.C.’s family law legal aid eligibility requirements are problematic because single mothers must earn no more than about $29,000 for a two-person household to qualify.
That means working mothers who earn more must often represent themselves in what is essentially a “broken” system, leaving some retraumatized because they could be cross-examined by a former partner’s lawyer.
Women who are working full-time and earning minimum wage can end up being treated like they have disposable income to spend on legal fees while having to take time off to be in court, Mangat added.
“When you factor in the fact that we’re talking about cases involving family violence, the stakes are high,” she said. “The abusive ex is typically somebody who’s not going to be reasonable, so these are not cases that have a prospect of settling out of court.
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“Our Family Law Act has a very robust definition of family violence, and there’s all sorts of things you can do to try to protect yourself. But what is the point of having those laws on the books if literally no one can access them, when you basically have a two-tier system?”
This is not the first time the Single Mothers’ Alliance case has faced opposition from the B.C. government and Legal Aid BC.
The province previously applied to have the case thrown out, arguing the claims were not suitable to be decided by a court, while the Legal Services Society argued the case should not move ahead in part. In 2019, the Single Mothers’ Alliance said the court ruled “in no uncertain terms” that the case should proceed.
“We have been hearing about this issue from single mothers in British Columbia since we founded in 2014,” said Single Mothers’ Alliance director Viveca Ellis.
“What they deserve and what we’re fighting for is the right to a trial, to have their experiences understood by the public, to have it heard in a court of law, and to have it all considered — how B.C. has failed them.”
According to Mangat, only the very poor can currently access some legal aid, but the hours are limited and do not take into account those who have a cognitive disability or a parallel immigration proceeding underway.
Further, she said many women are deemed “too well off” to qualify for legal aid, which is “out of touch with economic realities,” or if they do qualify, many will run out of legal aid hours before meaningful resolution can be found in their case.
“We’re sort of expecting people to somehow navigate a broken system, and we’re calling that access to justice,” she said.
The case aims to have the court rule on the constitutionality of the current family law legal aid system. There will be no remedy for Single Mothers’ Alliance or damages awarded, Mangat explained.
As it stands, the trial is scheduled to begin in February 2023.
— with files from The Canadian Press