British Columbia

Financially strapped legal service for B.C. immigrants gets temporary federal help

Additional short-term funding from the federal government will ensure refugees in B.C. can continue to access legal aid.

Legal aid for immigrants, refugees was slated to be suspended due to lack of funds

In June, officials with B.C.'s Legal Services Society said the number of claims increased by 145 per cent over the past three years. (CBC)

A program that provides free legal services to B.C. immigrants and refugees has been given a temporary reprieve after the federal government provided it with a $386,000 emergency cash injection.

The services provided by the Legal Services Society, were set to be suspended on August 1st due to a lack of funding. The program is now set to continue until at least mid-November.

In a statement, B.C. Attorney General David Eby thanked his federal counterparts for the cash infusion, which will keep the program running — at least temporarily.

"Legal aid and equal access to justice for all in British Columbia is a top priority for me and for Premier Horgan," Eby wrote in a statement.

"We appreciate the work of Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould who secured additional short-term federal funding which provides a solution at least until the fall."

In June, officials with Legal Services Society said the number of claims had increased by 145 per cent over the past three years, but it had not received an increase in federal funding to continue the program.

As a result, it said it would have to close by November.

The legal society has a $1.7 million annual budget for immigration and refugee services — roughly $900,000 comes from the federal government, while $800,000 is provided by the province.

Temporary fix

Angela Marie MacDougall, the executive director of Vancouver's Battered Women's Support Services — where over 40 per cent of clients are immigrant or refugee women, said she often refers her clients to the legal aid society.

MacDougall said that while she's relieved the program has been salvaged for now, she remains concerned for the future.

"Temporary isn't sufficient when we're talking about a vulnerable population," she said.

"[The] effort that we want to take going ahead is to ensure the government understands the importance of this resource for some of the most vulnerable people."

MacDougall said that immigrant women facing domestic violence are particularly vulnerable — in some cases, women may not even be sure of their own immigration status.

"We want to be sure that they have access to all the legal services that are available to them within Canadian law as it relates to immigration and refugees, and that means having access to a lawyer."

The situation in B.C. is not unique — Legal Aid Ontario also said it would be cutting legal aid for refugees and immigrants in November if it did not receive more federal funding, but eventually backed away from its threat to suspend the program.

In a release, the B.C. government said that securing sustained federal support for provincial legal aid programs for refugees will be addressed at a meeting of federal and provincial ministers scheduled for September.