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Volume Ten, Number One   January 2005   www.columbiajournal.ca

Women paying price of legal services cutbacks

CPP News

(Vancouver) As a result of legal aid cuts women are losing custody of their children, giving up valid legal rights to support, and being subjected to litigation harassment, according to a new report. It finds that women are paying a greater price for BC's deep cuts to legal services because it is primarily family and poverty law legal aid that have been affected. Women's need for legal services is overwhelmingly in these areas, not in criminal law (where almost no cuts were made).

Grinch"The impact of legal services cuts on women has been devastating," says Alison Brewin, author of Legal Aid Denied: Women and the Cuts to Legal Services in BC, released by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and West Coast LEAF. Brewin is program director for West Coast LEAF. "Women are being put in totally unacceptable situations," she says. "Without legal aid they must spend endless days navigating a complex legal system - researching and preparing legal documents, appearing without a lawyer for highly charged divorce and custody cases, and agreeing to settlements that are not in their own or their children's interests."

In 2002 the provincial government announced a 40% cut to the Legal Services Society's (LSS) budget over three years. Full-time staff were slashed from 460 to 155 and the province replaced 42 offices and 14 area directors with seven offices and 22 local agents. The majority of the 40% cut occurred in family law legal aid, and through the complete elimination of provincial funding for poverty law (for example, for welfare and employment insurance matters) and immigration law. Women are twice as likely to access family law legal aid, whereas men are five times more likely to access criminal legal aid.

The number of funded referrals to private lawyers for family law matters decreased by 58% between 2000/01 and 2003/04; referrals for criminal cases decreased by just 2%. The province has restricted access to family law legal aid to situations where someone is fearful for their own safety or that of their children. The amount of representation available has also decreased dramatically - even when aid is granted, it is limited to a maximum of 8 hours and is provided only to assist with obtaining a restraining order or change in custody agreement to protect the recipient's and/or her children's safety.

Noelle Heppell can attest to the impact of the government's changes. Following the cuts she was denied access to legal aid to deal with ongoing child maintenance issues and was forced to represent herself in court. "I don't know very much about the court system," Heppell said. "I lost almost half of the child maintenance because I did not have adequate legal representation. The system does not work for women. You try to get help but you can't get it anywhere." West Coast LEAF is collecting sworn testimony from women across the province describing their situations following the cuts.

"The province's actions are shameful," says Brewin. "The government is taking in significantly more money for legal aid than it is spending." The province collects a 7.5% tax on legal services that is supposed to go directly to legal aid. It is difficult to determine exactly how much is being collected, but some estimates put the amount over $90 million. The federal government also contributes $9 million for criminal legal aid. Yet current provincial government spending is only $55 million.

"The government has an obligation - under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as well as international human rights agreements - to take into account the impact of policy changes on women and ensure their equality rights are respected," says Brewin. "It is failing miserably."





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