B.C. to launch new children’s lawyer’s office by spring 2017

A request for proposal has gone out from the Law Foundation of B.C. to non-profit organizations to submit a plan for developing and implementing a children’s lawyer’s office in B.C.

Interested organizations were given a Sept. 15 deadline to submit a proposal for the two-year pilot project, which has available funding up to $600,000.

Foundation executive director Wayne Robertson says the new office could be in place by spring 2017.

A $158,000 cy prés award (the result of a class action) landing in the foundation’s child welfare fund had triggered its board to examine different initiatives, says Robertson. The child welfare fund was created to improve and protect the welfare of children.

“The board of the law foundation looked at what we might do and the idea of funding a children’s lawyer’s office was one of the possibilities. Ultimately, it was decided and we looked at what we would do about finding enough funds to launch a pilot project,” says Robertson.

The foundation raised $600,000. The child welfare fund had some existing money, which was combined with the cy prés award, while other contributors were the foundation’s Strategic Initiative Fund, the Law Society of B.C. Access to Justice Fund, the Notary Foundation of B.C. and B.C.’s Office of the Representative for Children and Youth.

The decision to re-establish an office, which was closed 12 years ago when the province cut legal funding, was rooted in a growing concern that children’s voices were not being heard in legal matters.

“It was seen that our children are a vulnerable group. They don’t have representatives in proceedings that affect them or in family law proceedings,” he says.

Robertson says he believes there will be three main focal areas where the office could become involved if needed. The first is in contested disputes between parents in family law cases where the interests of the child or children are impacted. The second area, he says, is in child protection cases where the child or children should have an independent representation to voice their concerns.

“There is some provision under our [existing] legislation, but it doesn’t seem to be well known and seems limited,” he says. The third area is issues that impact a child’s social life such as legal issues arising from school, employment, housing, bullying or street gangs.

While the office of the children’s lawyer will be available to all children, a priority will be to address the legal issues that impact aboriginal children and youth as well as immigrant and refugee, street-involved and LGBTQ youth.

Robertson says the proposals from organizations will be considered and a decision made on the successful applicant by late November.

“The proposals will give us an idea of what the landscape might look like,” says Robertson, who admits that $300,000 a year is not a lot of funding. The organization will have to outline how it plans to deliver legal services to youth throughout the province. He says there will probably be only one office and that the organization will hire lawyers on a “case-by-case” basis as is needed to represent B.C. youth.

When the office is in place, B.C. will be the fourth province to offer these services to children and youth. “Ontario, New Brunswick and Alberta have lawyer services for children,” Robertson says, but each system is different with some offering more coverage than others.

If the successful applicant is advised in November, Robertson says he believes the organization could be in place by April 2017. “It really depends upon how quickly they can get things together such as hiring staff, developing procedures and finding space to rent,” he says.

An important part of the pilot program will be its evaluation, says Robertson.

“We will be ensuring that there is good evaluation of the program so that at the end of the pilot phase we can determine what difference the work of the office has made to children and, if successful, we hope that money might be made to continue the work,” he says.

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