When the Battered Women’s Support Services began their legal advocacy program in 1990, they found that almost 80% of their clients needed legal support of some kind – whether it be for custody and other family law issues, criminal matters like assault, or immigration services.
This week the organization welcomed a full-time practicing lawyer to their team, but they say it’s a band-aid solution to a systematic lack of government legal aid.
According to executive director Angela Marie MacDougall, the problem is two-fold: one, a lack of funding; and two, a lack of access.
“Legal aid has been de-funded systematically over the last 20 years by the government of British Columbia,” she says, adding that “the very cumbersome intake process means the vast majority of women are denied.”
Experiencing domestic violence is a criteria that qualifies someone for legal aid, but MacDougall says that there are issues with intake.
“So it’s kind of a practice where women are denied the first time they apply, almost as routine, because when we go back and advocate, women will then get approved. It takes a considerable amount of time to do that advocacy work for women to get accepted.”
This lack of access to legal aid, MacDougall says, means that women are often forced to represent themselves. Self-representation is not ideal as it often creates an imbalance, as an abusive partner usually has more financial resources and can afford a professional lawyer.
While their new lawyer will help represent some of their clients, MacDougall says the organization will continue to advocate on behalf of their clients to get more access to legal aid.