Opinion: Access to legal services for women is an equality issue

  • March 07, 2017

By Kim Hawkins for The Vancouver Sun

“Be Bold for Change” is the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day and the message could not be more timely.

Since the early 1900s, International Women’s Day has celebrated women’s achievements while calling for gender equality. While we see examples everywhere of women successfully contributing in business and politics, organizing, marching, and writing, there remain many challenges to the achievement of substantive equality. One such challenge is access to justice.

Rise Women’s Legal Centre is a new legal clinic that provides free and low cost legal services to low-income, self-identified women. Our services, which mainly address family law problems, are delivered by upper year students from the University of British Columbia’s Allard School of Law, in collaboration with staff lawyer supervisors. As the executive director of Rise, the question that I am asked more than any other is why we have a legal clinic that provides services exclusively to women.

In short, we provide legal services to women because access to family law services is a women’s equality issue. Since 2002, many people in British Columbia needing legal assistance have been denied adequate representation because of staggering cuts to legal aid. While men and women have been negatively impacted by the cuts, which saw the legal aid budget reduced by 40 per cent over three years, it was some of the services that were most accessed by women, such as family law and poverty law, that were cut the deepest. Despite some small pilot projects funded by the provincial government in recent years, B.C.’s spending on legal aid remains the third lowest per capita in Canada.

Today legal aid representation in family law cases is only available where there is actual or threatened family violence, or to resolve the serious denial of access to children – even for people whose low income would otherwise make them eligible for assistance. The Canadian Bar Association B.C. Branch, in its recently published Agenda for Justice, has stated that B.C.’s justice system requires attention now to avert a growing crisis, and called for adequate funding for family law services which were eliminated in 2002, including issues of divorce, child access and custody, financial support and asset division. They noted that 71 per cent of people who would financially qualify for such services are women.

The effects of marital breakdown on women can be severe. Data analyzed by the University of Toronto in 2008 demonstrated that women’s median income in the years following their separation dropped significantly more than men’s, and did not recover, even after four years. Research shows that women still earn less than men in the paid labour force, are disproportionately responsible for child and elder care within families, and are disproportionately the victims of family violence. All of these issues have been exacerbated by cuts to other social services that supported women including women’s centres, the Human Rights Commission, and welfare. The result is that women are less likely to be able to afford a lawyer than men, another reason that cuts to family law legal aid impact women more severely.

And although the non-profit community in British Columbia has stepped up to provide a network of transition homes, anti-violence organizations and advocates who can provide legal information, these programs usually cannot provide le030gal advice or representation. Legal information is not the same as legal advocacy and representation, and access to pamphlets and online tools, as important as it is, cannot stand in for the advice and support of a trained legal professional. Leaving aside literacy, language barriers, and access to safe and accessible Internet, legal problems are lonely, complex and difficult, and unmet legal needs can lead to broader social problems.

For all of these reasons, Rise Women’s Legal Centre was created to serve women as an important step toward women’s equality in B.C.

Being bold can look like a political march, but it can also look like a woman seeking a protection order for herself and her child, a law student who pushes past their fear to bring a court application for the first time, and people everywhere working within their individual sectors to inch us incrementally towards gender parity. Ultimately, we must all Be Bold for Change wherever it is needed.

Kim Hawkins is the executive director of Rise Women’s Legal Centre. For more information on the work of Rise Women’s legal Centre, visit www.womenslegalcentre.ca