CBA BC branch slams provincial budget for absence of new funding for family law legal aid

Budget comes after $29M in legal aid funding announced to aid survivors of domestic abuse

CBA BC branch slams provincial budget for absence of new funding for family law legal aid
Scott Morishita, president of the Canadian Bar Association BC Branch

The British Columbia Branch of the Canadian Bar Association has decried the lack of family law legal aid funding in the province’s 2024 budget.

The province announced the budget Thursday and highlighted its focus on assisting British Columbians with the high cost of living, spurring housing supply, and strengthening healthcare. CBABC responded with “deep disappointment” that the government left out “appropriate provisions” for legal aid to assist the province’s “most vulnerable.”

CBABC president Scott Morishita says his organization has been pushing the BC government to increase family law legal aid funding for the last decade. Family law legal aid is limited to people escaping intimate partner violence and those with a spouse withholding access to children, he says. CBABC has called on the province to make coverage available for general family law matters, such as obtaining spousal and child support.

“BC is the only province in Canada that does not provide family law legal aid for routine matters,” he says. “We're just asking the government to bring it up to the level of coverage and funding that other provinces provide.”

A spokesperson for the BC Ministry of the Attorney General told Canadian Lawyer that, while there is “always more work to do,” the province has made “significant investments” in legal aid since 2018. They say Legal Aid’s 2024 budget included $75 million more in government funding than the 2016/2017 budget. Legal Aid BC also adjusted financial eligibility thresholds across all areas of law, which resulted in more than 3,300 additional contracts being issued between December 2022 and January 2024.

The spokesperson notes that BC provides “family limited representation contracts” that assist clients with family law issues with mediation, settlement negotiation, and self-representation.

On Feb. 15, BC announced that it would expand legal aid coverage and open a new family law clinic focused on survivors of intimate partner violence. Overall, the new investment is worth $29 million and resolves a long-standing Charter challenge that argued BC’s patchwork of legal aid delivery was inequitable, arbitrary, and harmful to those with abusive romantic partners. The CBABC applauded the announcement, with Morishita calling it a “step in the right direction” but noting that a gap remained.

Morishita says British Columbians can receive legal aid funding if they are accused of a crime or have an immigration claim, but if they need help with separation and divorce, parenting arrangements, and dividing property fairly, it is not available.

BC is also the only province with a sales tax on legal services. The measure was introduced in 1992 to raise money for legal aid services. In 2002, BC’s Ministry of the Attorney General cut legal aid by 40 percent, and the CBABC says only a portion of the sales tax revenue is used for legal aid.

The budget has been characterized as an “election year budget” with a lot of new spending, says Morishita. He says the government has emphasized the need to help families struggling with inflation and the high cost of living.

“But in not providing legal aid funding for regular routine family matters, they are leaving a lot of people to fend for themselves. This is an access to justice issue.”

“There's talk about healthcare and all these other services that are essential. But I can't think of many services that are more essential than helping somebody who can't afford to pay for a lawyer but has an issue where they can't get child support.”

Among the provinces which do not require a client contribution, the ministry spokesperson says BC has one of the “most generous set eligibility criteria” for legal aid. They added that the province has added $15 million over three years to expand the “early resolution model,” which gives people with family law matters “early access to information and screening” for family violence, referrals, out-of-court dispute resolution assistance, and court preparation. Last year, the province also added $44 million to expand Indigenous Justice Centres to 15 locations plus a virtual centre.

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