Women paying price of legal services cutbacks
(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).
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
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