Cuts to Legal Aid Undermine Battered Women's Access to the Courts

Sunday, November 1, 1998

Written 20 years ago and sadly still relevant

Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter is the first rape crisis centre in Canada. We operate a 24 hour, 7 day a week rape crisis centre and transition house for battered women. We act as advocates for women who have experienced male violence, some women choose to engage the justice system in one form or another. We shelter more than 125 women and their children each year. Battered women deal with a range of issues that require access to legal advice by a qualified lawyer. Issues include:

Custody and access of children which almost always involves negotiating with a man who has been or continues to be abusive towards the mother.

Securing of Restraining orders to protect herself and her family from a violent man.

Division of property (which legal aid no longer covers) for which a fair settlement is impossible to achieve in a situation where a man is already controlling and or violent.

Defend against criminalization of women who protect themselves against an attack by a battering husband. The police have arrested and charged women on charges of "mutual battering".

Women also need advice regarding immigration issues, as immigrant women do not have adequate means to know all of their rights. The threat of deportation is used as a control mechanism by their abusive husbands, bosses, or fathers.
The consequences we have observed as a result of the legal aid cuts:

Women trying to protect their children from an abusive men are required to provide medical corroboration of abuse in order to get legal representation to vary court orders related to custody and /or access. This is not always possible. Women must be aided to protect themselves and their children before abuse escalates to the point where it can be medically documented. 

Women are forced to expose violence or abuse in order to qualify for legal aid.

Pressure on legal services staff to stay within budget results in women being suspected and (almost) accused of lying in order to secure legal aid funding.

The cuts to legal aid, redirection of money to family justice centres and the emphasis on mediation has put women in the position of negotiating with an abusive or controlling man in mediation. Women who manage to escape before getting hit do not qualify for legal aid and are being turned away to deal with the abuser on their own in mediation where all the parties are assumed to be on more or less equal footing.

Fewer lawyers are willing to accept legal aid funded clients or must make other better funded clients the priority. As a result, women who are legal aid funded have less access to their lawyers and fewer options when choosing a lawyer.

If a particular court action requires more time than has been approved, a woman's lawyer Is required to break confidentiality with her to explain to legal services why further funding is necessary. Legal aid recipients have less protection of their rights to confidentiality with their lawyers than those who have money to pay directly.

Women are faced with the possibility that men who assault them will go without legal counsel or representation in criminal court. We want fair trials, we know and that understand that if men's civil rights are eroded the impact will be even greater on women’s civil rights

Without adequate access to legal aid in B.C., Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter is hobbled in our mandate to secure women’s safety and the safety of their children from violent husbands and boyfriends. We are also undermined in our efforts to ensure that women are treated fairly in court when witness to the violence committed against them.

Women who are in the most desperate situations generally qualify under emergency provisions and because we as an organization press for the individual woman's access to legal aid. However, the erosion of legal services has the effect of undermining women’s equality rights because women who are not on the very bottom of the economic ladder are just as subject to male violence and other forms of discrimination and harassment, yet are expected to fend for themselves in a sexist justice system against a sexist man, employer or the state.

The redesign of legal aid to deal only with the most desperate of situations undermines the promotion and protection of constitutional rights for both men and women, and therefore undermines the achievement of women’s equality. Legal counsel and representation by a trained lawyer of our choice is the very minimum of what a democratic government guarantees and the elected NDP government is taking away access to these rights when they cut legal aid.

Legal Aid must be restored to adequate levels to respond to the needs of battered women and everyone else requiring legal counsel in this province. The commitment to fund at adequate levels will be an indication of the elected government's commitment to ensuring the democratic rights of its citizens which in turn supports the achievement of women’s equality rights.