03/27/2015 05:43 EDT | Updated 05/27/2015 05:59 EDT

B.C. introduces new legal centre for parents in child protection system

VANCOUVER - The B.C. government is hoping to reduce the number of child-protection cases going to court by opening a new legal centre for parents.

The Parents Legal Centre is a pilot project that will be located in the Vancouver law courts and will be staffed by a lawyer, an intake worker and an advocate.

Parents or guardians involved with the Ministry of Children and Family Development or an aboriginal agency will be able to access information, advice, referrals and some legal representation at the centre.

The Legal Services Society will operate the $300,000 centre, as one of several pilot projects funded by the Ministry of Justice's previously announced injection of $6 million over three years.

Attorney General Suzanne Anton said Friday the government hopes early intervention will resolve disputes in child-protection cases before they make it to court.

"We want to see the court become a valued last resort. That's our vision for justice transformation in British Columbia, and it's what we're delivering," she said at a news conference.

Kasari Govender of West Coast LEAF said the new centre is a positive step, but it's only a "drop in the bucket" compared to what's needed to fix the critical legal aid shortage in B.C.

"This is one tiny element of a much larger crisis in the justice system, particularly in family law," she said. "The cuts to legal aid since 2002, which have absolutely gutted legal services, have had a detrimental impact on women's lives."

She said the province needs to increase funding and widen the scope of legal aid coverage for families to include divorce and child custody, even when there is no violence in a relationship.

A 2014 report by Lawyers' Rights Watch Canada said B.C. has the third-lowest per capita legal-aid spending in Canada and fails to meet international human rights obligations.

The report said the Liberal government slashed support for legal aid in 2002 shortly after it took office and funding remains at last-century levels despite inflation and population growth.

The pilot project will continue until March 31, 2017.

Minister of Children and Family Development Stephanie Cadieux attended the news conference but dodged questions about the death of 21-month-old Isabella Wiens, whose mother Sara-Jane Wiens is suing the province for recklessness and bad faith.

Wiens was found dead in her crib in her foster home in March 2013. A coroner could not determine the cause of death, but her body was found with multiple bruises and fractures.

Asked why the Burnaby home where Wiens was living was shut down, Cadieux declined to comment.

"Because I personally do not have that information, I can not give you that information today," she said. "Any time there is a critical injury or death, obviously it's tragic that those happen. They do happen for a variety of reasons."

— Follow @ellekane on Twitter.