02/26/2014 02:36 EST | Updated 04/28/2014 05:59 EDT

Access to justice nearly impossible in thousands of family law cases: report

VANCOUVER - A women's advocacy group is proposing two ways to address a critical lack of family law services in British Columbia, saying cuts to legal-aid funding have made access to justice nearly impossible for vulnerable citizens.

West Coast LEAF says women in particular are at a huge disadvantage after the breakdown of a marriage, especially if violence, low-income and child-custody issues are involved.

The group released a report Wednesday recommending two pilot projects — one with lawyers working in community agencies so legal services can be integrated with those of other professionals such as counsellors, social workers and interpreters.

The other proposal is for a women's clinic led by student lawyers who would provide free and low-cost family law services in the Metro Vancouver area, with a travel and technology budget to serve remote regions.

Laura Track, a legal director at West Coast LEAF, said the cost of hiring a lawyer is so prohibitive for most people that the Canadian Bar Association estimates 95 per cent of litigants represent themselves in family law cases.

Navigating a hugely complex legal system without a lawyer slows down the court process and adds to the existing backlog, Track said.

She noted that the lack of legal advice early on also means many people don't access the benefits of a settlement or a negotiation through alternate routes such as mediation and end up in court instead.

"One of the reasons that access to advice and access to representation to family law is so crucial is that without that assistance we see women going up against a former abuser in court, having to cross-examine somebody who was violent toward them in the course of the relationship," Track said.

"We also see women simply walking away from their legal rights because they want to put the whole matter behind them. They want to protect their children."

The report said having a lawyer available in transition houses, women's shelters and family support centres would provide a "one-stop shop" for women whose legal and emotional needs would be met in one place.

Legal clinics headed by student lawyers from the province's three law schools could also provide services through Skype to facilitate communication with clients, the report said.

"Legal services would be free for those earning under a certain income and could be offered on a sliding scale to those with greater means."

The report said an innovative student-driven program was established in Fredericton in 2009 after cuts to the Domestic Legal Aid program reduced services provided by mediators and duty counsel lawyers in New Brunswick's family courts.

Elsewhere, Pro Bono Students Canada runs the Family Law Project in five provinces, with law students providing information and assistance to clients, the report said.

In Ontario, the first province to develop the program, student volunteers work in family law courts and Family Law Information Centres, where they partner with legal aid duty counsel and support staff to help prepare court documents.

Track said funding for the two proposals could come from the Legal Services Society, which has a $1 million surplus, though the government has not granted permission for the money to be spent on legal-aid services.

Another source of funding is the $115 million that has been collected in tax from legal services since 1999 specifically for legal aid, although the government has never used any of the money for that purpose, she said.

The Attorney General's Ministry said in a statement that the province gets about $140 million a year in provincial sales tax from legal services, though there's never been any structured link with legal-aid funding.

Track disputed that, saying the tax was meant to be directed toward legal-aid funding when it was brought in by the NDP.

The ministry also said $74.5 million has been provided for legal-aid funding in the 2014-15 budget, an increase of $2 million over last year.

However, Track said that doesn't make up for the huge cuts the Liberals made in 2002, when the Legal Services Society's budget was slashed to $55 million from $85 million over three years.

She said B.C. is currently 10th out of 13 provinces and territories when it comes to per-capita spending for legal-aid services.

West Coast LEAF's recommendations for reform were based on a year of consultations in 16 urban, rural and remote communities across B.C.

A comprehensive report done for the provincial government three years ago said the social and economic costs of inadequate access to legal services in the province are too high to postpone fundamental change.

Lawyer Len Doust said in his report that legal aid should be considered an essential service, much like health care and education.