Three Vancouver advocacy groups say funding cuts to B.C. legal aid have made it harder for women fleeing abusive relationships to get help from lawyers.
As a result, West Coast Women's Legal Education and Action Fund (West Coast LEAF) and the B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre with help from the Single Mothers' Alliance B.C. have filed a constitutional challenge against the province and the Legal Services Society.
One of three plaintiffs in the case is Nicole Bell, who says her former boyfriend became abusive when she became pregnant.
Her ex-boyfriend pleaded guilty to uttering threats and was given a probationary sentence. He eventually applied for full custody of their daughter but didn't get it.
Savings liquidated to qualify for legal aid
"I was absolutely terrified when he hired a lawyer," said Bell. "I couldn't afford a lawyer on my own. I was only receiving maternity benefits at the time, so I applied for legal aid, but my application was denied because I held just over $8,000 in RRSPs."
Belle liquidated her RRSPs so she could qualify. She then was approved for legal aid.
Six months after being granted full custody of her daughter, the threats against Bell from her ex allegedly continued. She once again required legal aid but was denied, in part, because she had previously used it.
Bell was forced to find a lawyer on her own. She says she has paid a year's worth of university tuition and is living off credit cards.
The other plaintiffs are an anonymous victim and the Single Mothers' Alliance B.C..
Cuts to legal aid since 2002
West Coast LEAF and the BCPIAC said cases like Bell's are common because of cuts made to legal aid between 2002 and 2005. Advocates say in that time period, family law legal aid in B.C. was cut by 60 per cent.
"It means the Legal Services Society has had to impose strict limitations on eligibility for legal aid and on the scope of legal services available under a legal aid contract," explained Kate Feeney, staff lawyer with BCPIAC and co-counsel on the challenge.
In their challenge, BCPIAC and West Coast LEAF say the financial eligibility criteria and the cap on legal hours imposed by the Legal Services Society is unconstitutional.
The B.C. Government has not responded to a request for comment on the challenge.
Bell hopes by sharing her story, she'll help make it easier for women who need legal help to get it.