On June 15, CBABC delivered its 21st submission to the Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services as part of the government’s Budget 2024 Consultations.
CBABC President, Aleem Bharmal, KC called on the government to provide sufficient funding for family law legal aid so that low-income British Columbians have access to legal representation for typical family law matters such as child support, division of asset & debts and parenting arrangements.
Good morning. My name is Aleem Bharmal and I use the pronouns he and him.
I join you from the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish People, specifically the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations.
I am the President of the Canadian Bar Association, British Columbia Branch, also known as CBABC.
We are nearly 7,800 lawyers and law students on the front lines of our legal and justice systems in all practice areas. We witness daily how BC’s laws and policies impact our clients.
The government needs to invest in many aspects of our justice and public safety systems. Our Victoria courthouse is falling apart. Abbotsford’s courthouse doesn’t have drinking water. Restorative justice needs sustainable funding and there has been insufficient investment in modernizing our court technological infrastructure.
Today I am here to ask you to invest in the single greatest step we can take to improve the lives of a significant portion of British Columbians.
We are asking, as we have for over a decade, for the government to fund family law legal aid so families can have legal representation in typical family law matters and more people can access family law legal aid services.
Legal aid is an essential public service, yet funding still falls drastically short of meeting the needs of people, especially those navigating family disputes.
Right now in this province, a person of modest or no income cannot receive legal aid to get child support or negotiate a parenting agreement. They can’t get assistance to secure spousal support or fairly divide up debts and assets. Those impacted most are our mothers, sisters, children and grandparents.
They would be able to get legal aid if they were accused of a crime, had an immigration claim or needed a restraining order because of intimate partner violence.
They can’t get legal aid to help them negotiate a family settlement or to use the court system as a last resort.
Instead they are left to figure this out without legal representation. No one to help them calculate what amount of child support they should receive. No one to help craft a parenting schedule and calculate the impact on child support paid. No one to protect the modest assets they have worked hard to gain.
There hasn’t been this type of coverage in this province for over 20 years and that is evident in every courtroom filled with self-represented litigants. Many give up and suffer financial insecurity for themselves and their children. They end up relying on government income and housing.
The current government thinks that by enabling paralegals to provide advice and representation in family matters this problem will be solved. It won’t.
It won’t because these services are not publicly funded to help low-income British Columbians.
This needs to change.
Failing to fund family law legal aid has a significant impact on access to justice, which in turn undermines public confidence in our justice system and our government.
This government gave Legal Aid BC the mandate to identify the best ways and tools to improve access to justice for low-income families. To deliver on this, Legal Aid BC needs to be able to provide representation to parents and children with these routine matters.
We all know that when people have early legal advice and assistance to resolve to their family law problems, they reduce the stress on their family and help them forge ongoing parenting relationships.
Receiving legal representation at that stage would benefit so many families. Funding of mediation support through legal aid would keep more cases out of the court system.
The legal aid system in BC is under-funded and under-resourced and we’re all paying the cost. A lack of legal aid funding is unacceptable in a province as rich as ours.
We urge the Government to place funding into family law service legal aid representation so that people can access the basic financial support and secure parenting arrangements to provide stability for their families.
Thank you for the opportunity to present this recommendation for consideration in Budget 2024.