B.C. court gives go-ahead to constitutional challenge of legal aid system

By Ian Burns

Law360 Canada (December 23, 2022, 9:45 AM EST) -- A constitutional challenge to B.C.’s legal aid regime is going ahead after a judge gave standing to a single mothers’ advocacy group which says the system discriminates against people fleeing abuse.

The challenge from the Single Mothers’ Alliance was launched in 2017 and alleges that B.C. has responsibility under the Charter to ensure access to the justice system for women who are fleeing violent relationships or facing ongoing abuse from ex-spouses. The alliance, which is being represented by West Coast LEAF, argues that the province’s legal aid system discriminates against women and children as family legal aid is often denied because a situation is deemed not violent enough or people working full-time at minimum wage are viewed as not needing it.

For its part, the province argued the alliance did not meet the test for public interest standing, as outlined in Canada (Attorney General) v. Downtown Eastside Sex Workers United Against Violence Society, 2012 SCC 45, and said a summary trial of standing would promote judicial economy.

But B.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson granted standing to the alliance in a decision issued Dec. 15, ruling that the alliance met two factors in the Downtown Eastside test — namely, it had raised a serious justiciable issue and had a real stake, or a genuine interest, in it (Single Mothers’ Alliance of BC Society v. British Columbia, 2022 BCSC 2193).

“Through the plaintiff’s work advocating for single mothers, its various engagements with governmental bodies, its campaigns to highlight the challenges faced by single mothers seeking legal aid, and its efforts to alleviate poverty for single mothers and their children, the plaintiff has demonstrated it has a genuine interest and a real stake in the issues raised in this litigation,” he wrote. “The plaintiff is not a mere busybody.”

But Chief Justice Hinkson also wrote that there are “concerns regarding the actual evidence the plaintiff will advance, and the impact of a decision made on a deficient factual record on future litigants.”

“While I found that the plaintiff has failed to demonstrate what evidence it has to support many of its claims, I am still granting it public interest standing,” he wrote. “I am exercising my discretion to grant standing in consideration that the plaintiff is not a mere busybody, and that there must be access to the courts to ensure that government actions are subject to legal scrutiny.”

West Coast LEAF executive director Raji Mangat

West Coast LEAF executive director Raji Mangat

West Coast LEAF executive director Raji Mangat pointed to the fact British Columbia tried to strike the alliance’s claims in 2019 — and lost.

“Now, they challenged the alliance’s ability to bring this case to trial. They’ve lost again,” she said. “It’s time the B.C. government took single mothers’ concerns about family law legal aid seriously.”

Monique Pongracic-Speier of Ethos Law Group LLP, who is one of the lawyers representing the alliance, said she was pleased with the court’s decision, which “correctly applies the law of public interest standing in the context of systemic Charter litigation.”

“It is important that the court affirmed the standing of an organizational plaintiff to carry this litigation forward,” she said. “Sometimes — as in this case — it is not realistic for individuals to carry the heavy burden of systemic Charter litigation. The court’s confirmation of our client’s standing affirms the importance of effective access to justice.”

Family violence continues to be too prevalent in society and its consequences are serious and too often lethal, Pongracic-Speier said.

“But women on the receiving end of family violence are often the people least able to retain legal counsel for economic reasons,” she said. “Financial eligibility criteria for family law legal aid in British Columbia are restrictive and disqualify many who cannot afford to retain a lawyer without sacrificing necessities for themselves or their children.”

A spokesperson for B.C. Attorney General’s office said the ministry was unable to comment on the specifics of the case as it is still before the court, but noted that provincial funding for legal aid services has increased by over $30 million since the 2017-2018 fiscal year.

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