Published in 24 Hours Vancouver | May 1, 2014 | Circulation: ca. 280,000
Cuts to legal aid in B.C. have created barriers for women fleeing domestic violence — with abusive partners able to use the system to continue harassment, says a Vancouver family lawyer.
For family lawyer Salima Samnani, the 25-hour funding cap on services she can offer in provincial cases means that up to 80% of her clients are left representing themselves.
For a woman escaping from a violent or otherwise abusive partner, navigating the legal system alone is inappropriate.
“These women are fleeing for their lives,” she told 24 Hours. “They can barely feed themselves and their children, some are lining up for a shelter every night, how are they possibly supposed to understand the complexity of the Family Law Act and represent themselves?”
The problem, she said, is not with legal aid staff or judges — whom Samnani said have never turned down an order she requested — but rather with limited funding and mandate.
Attorney General Suzanne Anton said B.C. is adding $2 million this year to Legal Service Society’s $73-million budget, particularly for “early resolutions and out-of-court solutions.”
“In serious family situations, where a court order is required to ensure the safety of the applicant and/or their children, Legal Services Society will provide legal representation to financially eligible individuals,” she wrote in an emailed statement.
For B.C. cases, the only way to extend the time limit is through “collaborative” out-of-court mediation. In 2013, Samnani was allotted extra time to mediate a child custody case, only to have the situation collapse.
“The man was yelling at her and she was just crying herself into a pulp, like a clam folded in half,” Samnani recalled. “It’s awful and inappropriate, some of these women are black and blue and legal aid is saying, ‘Why don’t you use your collaborative hours?’”
Abusers are “using the courts to continue their harassment” by “dragging out legal battles until legal aid runs out,” said YWCA’s advocacy manager Chantelle Krish.
“One of most common procedures we see is abusers dragging out legal battles until their legal aid hours run out, then they’re left to self-represent,” she told 24 hours. “The women just don’t get an equal footing or resources.”
West Coast LEAF executive director Kasari Govender calls such abuse “litigation harassment.” She has heard “many reports” from women unable to get protection orders from abusive partners within the time limit. She wants to see legal aid’s 40% in funding cuts since 2002 reversed.
Interview requests to Legal Services Society were not returned by press time.