In the wake of a B.C. Supreme Court challenge, the province's Legal Services Society has reversed a decision to deny legal aid to a Lower Mainland woman who wants to fight her ex-husband's plans to take their children to India.
The about-face comes as the Trial Lawyer's Association of B.C. says it is preparing to challenge the province next year in court over problems resulting from what the legal community claims is chronic under-funding of the legal aid system.
Meanwhile, the association says it expects more cases like that of P.G., the woman who filed a petition asking for a judicial review of a decision denying her application for legal aid.
P.G. fears her ex-husband won't return from India if allowed to take their two children on vacation, but she says she lacks the English skills to navigate the court system.
"This is affecting thousands of people and it basically has resulted in a lack of access to justice which is not really tolerable in our society," says Chris Johnson, a co-chair with the trial lawyers association.
"It creates an imbalance over and over again where one party is able to essentially crush the other party who doesn't have a lawyer."
P.G. filed a petition in B.C. Supreme Court this week with the help of the B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre. She claims her ex-husband is manipulative and emotionally abusive and she needs legal representation "to ensure my voice and concerns for my children are heard."
Mark Benton, CEO of the Legal Services Society, says a decision was made to give P.G. legal aid after reviewing the material she presented in court.
"They assessed it based on that imminence of risk and the background and felt that it met the current criteria," he says.
Benton says the province drastically reduced legal aid funding in 2002. A priority is placed on criminal cases, meaning two-thirds of applications for help in family law are denied.
"It's enough to provide the current level of service, which is basically an emergency level of funding," he says.
"We've got thousands and thousands of people who show up, wait in the waiting room or wait on line to apply by phone because they need help, and we're refusing 60 to 66 per cent of them."
"It's reasonable to assume that anybody who's going to come and make that application is going to come because they feel they have a need."
Court challenge in 2015?
In a growing protest movement, trial lawyers are refusing to schedule legal aid matters in the first week of each month. The withdrawal now includes Vancouver, North Vancouver, Richmond, Surrey, Victoria and Kamloops. Johnson says he expects the protest to expand to Abbotsford and Chilliwack shortly.
He says the kind of fears and legal imbalance raised in P.G.'s petition reflect larger concerns about access to justice and rights guaranteed under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
To that end, Johnson says the association recently retained outside counsel to produce an opinion on the possibility of taking the province to court over legal aid. He says they are currently raising funds to mount a challenge.
"That would be with respect to a broad range of areas where people have been denied access to justice; that would include family law, poverty law and mentally-ill persons," Johnson says.
"It's an issue that the government's going to have to deal with, and so far I think it's been too easy for them not to deal with it."
The province is providing the Legal Services Society $74.5 million in 2014-15, including a $2 million annual increase over three years to fund expansion of legal aid in family and criminal law.
Last week, Justice Minister Suzanne Anton announced a new legal aid project to provide mediation to families hoping to resolve conflicts of property, debt, spousal support or child-related issues without going to court.