Crisis Compounded? Legal Aid, Feminist Advocacy, and the Budget Cuts in British Columbia, Canada

By Agnieszka Doll

Since 2002, the successive governments of the Canadian province of British Columbia (BC) have enacted large-scale budget cuts to state-funded legal aid. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives researchers reported that in 2002 provincial funding for legal aid has been cut by 40 percent (Brewin & Stephens, 2004; Govender & Milne, April 9, 2013) The most severe reductions were implemented in areas of family law, poverty law, and immigration legal aid. In fact, by the 2010 the legal aid representation in poverty and immigration cases was completely eliminated, while in family law, such representation has been limited to high risk cases (Brewin & Govender, 2010; Brewin & Stephens, 2004). In addition to difficulties in receiving legal representation, access to legal information has been also limited by changing eligibility threshold, substituting direct contact with lawyers with online and telephone service, and reducing the number of legal clinics. While legal aid in BC was considered insufficient even before the reductions, the cuts further deepened the crisis by limiting access to justice for the most marginalized populations (Morrow, Hankivsky, & Varcoe, 2004).

Feminist scholars (Morrow et al., 2004) have specifically argued that the cuts have a clear gender dimension. Firstly, prevalence of poverty among women, including those who experience intimate violence, renders women particularly disadvantaged by legal aid cuts as they often rely on state-resources for their access to justice (Sarophim, 2010). Secondly, the implemented cuts predominately targeted services related to family, civil or poverty law, which women tend to use more often that, for instance, services related to criminal law that received no similar cuts and that tend to be more frequently utilized by men. Third, concurrent implementation of changes limiting state funding for women’s organizations and subjecting funding to competitive distribution model, shattered existing infrastructure of research and advocacy-based organizations that are often unable to compete with for-profit organizations for service provision (Knight & Rodgers, 2012).

In the midst of those changes, I conducted (between 2008-2009) a qualitative study in one B.C women’s organization through which I explored how the organization’s staff experience delivering law-related services to women or helping these women access justice in the context of the budget cuts. I was also interested in learning about the extent to which existing legal services meet specific needs of immigrant women who experience intimate violence.

My interviews with the organization’s frontline staff and its administrators, as well as a focus group and hours of observations revealed three major findings regarding the consequences of government cuts on service offered by the organization:

1)      The organization went through severe employment shifts. For example, at the time of my research, the Victim Assistance Program – designed to assist women who experience abuse in navigating their criminal cases through the criminal justice system – lost all of its previous employees and was run by a new staff. Such shifts in the staff composition complicate the organization’s court presence; the previously established relations with the court personnel often need to be rebuilt, which takes significant amount of time and effort. Thus, the cuts contributed to shattering the organization’s credibility as legal advocates by affecting its ability to remain visible to justice and police administration.

2)      The organization became dependent on volunteer work. For example, the women’s center, which is often the first contact point for women seeking legal services, was forced to substitute the loss of three fourth of its professional staff with work of volunteers. This restructuring has consequences on the quality of information received by women who come for legal guidance. Since volunteers provide their help occasionally, their skills are mostly used to support the basic functioning of the center not to provide information about legal aid service to women in need. Often, they do not have the related professional training.

3)      Given changes in priority areas funded by the government, the organization adjusted their own services accordingly. Previous focus on feminist political awareness raising about the nature of gender inequalities or feminist advocacy gave way to emphasis on short-term relief services provided to the victims of gender violence. As organizations became forced to compete with each other for resources, they started to internalize the idea of self-sufficiency as their key for survival. Thus, instead of sharing resources such as translation services, etc. with other organizations, applying for own funding came to be regarded as a strategy of ensuing inflow of additional money to the organization.

One important implication of my study I would like to highlight is the impact of budget cuts on feminist organizations’ potential to pursue advocacy for women in the courts, in the police, and in other law enforcing institutions. While the budget cuts to legal services evidently degenerated the position of women experiencing violence who need to represent themselves in courts and often surround their rights, truly successful legal representation amounts to more then just having a lawyer. It would not be novel to say that the gender stereotypes still prevail in the criminal justice system; the domestic violence cases are considered of a lower importance to other criminal cases, and the knowledge of intimate violence by court, police authorities, but also by lawyers is often not sufficient. Thus, survivors-centered advocacy shall be considered as complementary to prosecution or to other legal procedures resulting from or linked to gender violence so the needs of women are addressed by judicial decisions (Nichols, 2013). I would like to also suggest that individual-level advocacy pursued on the ground by feminist advocates is instrumental for fair and equal access to justice for women, similar, as it is to the needs-based access to legal aid. The structural –level feminist advocacy needs to continue to expose the link between the gendered socio-structural inequalities and gender violence. Those important dimensions of women’s and anti-violence movements have been seriously jeopardized by the discussed budget cuts. The quest for funding had the effect of pushing women’s organizations to depoliticize and subvert feminist ideas about the relationship between gender, violence, and structural inequalities and, instead, adopt “a Band-Aid” solution to gender violence and channel their advocacy efforts. This way, by undermining the potential for feminist advocacy through budgets cuts, the B.C. governments made effective steps towards reinforcing gender order through legal means and within legal system.

Bibliography:

Brewin, A., & Govender, K. (2010). Rights-Based Legal Aid: Rebuilding BC’s Broken System. Retrieved from Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives website: http://www.policyalternatives.ca/sites/default/files/uploads/publications/BC Office/2010/11/CCPA_Legal_Aid_web.pdf

Brewin, A., & Stephens, L. (2004). Legal Aid Denied: Women and the Cuts to Legal Services in B.C. BC Office: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and West Coast LEAF.

Govender, K., & Milne, K. (April 9, 2013). BC’s Publicly Funded Legal Aid is in Crisis. Retrieved from Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives website: http://www.policyalternatives.ca/publications/commentary/bc%E2%80%99s-publicly-funded-legal-aid-crisis

Knight, M., & Rodgers, K. (2012). “The Government Is Operationalizing Neo-liberalism”: Women’s Organizations, Status of Women Canada, and the Struggle for Progressive Social Change in Canada. NORA – Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research, 20(4), 266-282. doi: 10.1080/08038740.2012.747786

Morrow, M., Hankivsky, O., & Varcoe, C. (2004). Women and Violence: The Effects of Dismantling the Welfare State. Critical Social Policy, 24(3), 358-384. doi: 10.1177/0261018304044364

Nichols, A. J. (2013). Meaning-Making and Domestic Violence Victim Advocacy: An Examination of Feminist Identities, Ideologies, and Practices. Feminist Criminology, 8(3), 177-201. doi: 10.1177/1557085113482727

Sarophim, J. (2010). Access Barred: The Effects of the Cuts and Restructuring of Legal Aid in B.C. on Women Attempting to Navigate the Provincial Family Court System. Canadian Journal of Family Law, 26(2), 451-472.

Condemned as a ‘Typical’ Man?

By Robin Hadley

A few moths ago, I attended a seminar on infertility treatment. The audience included those involved in infertility treatment, academics, practitioners, and interested others. The complexities surrounding infertility treatment are vast and range from the very intimate and personal to legalities at national and international level. Conducting research in such a sensitive area is fraught with difficulties and the speakers were all very aware of the ethical implications of their research and practice. I was particularly interested in the researchers’ experience of accessing and interviewing men. The general view in infertility studies has been that men are not interested in participating in research, and many studies are heavily weighted with female respondents. As one researcher described her many efforts to interview the male partner of a couple, a ripple of sympathetic recognition of her struggle arose from the audience. ‘Typical man’ seemed to be the collective verdict, mine included. As I reflected back on the day I returned to that incident. The audience reaction was one of sympathy for the researcher and I wondered if that man did not also deserve some empathy. I know from my own research that many men assume that they will be fathers and that that knowledge is so embedded that it is not discussed. The assumption expressed has been that one would leave school, get a job/go to university/ get a job, find a partner, find accommodation, have children. That being the case I tried to put myself in that man’s position: the assumed ‘natural’ event had not happened. How would I feel? Shocked to the very core? I think so. Perhaps I had been brought up not to show feelings and instead, to show control – ‘mastery’ – through actions and/or rationality. In which case my reactions may include striving to balance things up by working and playing harder, or not becoming involved. Being raised in an environment where I am not expected to express emotions, I possibly, do not have the confidence or vocabulary to verbalise my emotional state. Here are my musings on what may have been ‘going on’ if I was that unwilling participant, “So, here I am, not fulfilling the role I expected to – and that others seem to achieve with ease – and I cannot make it right. There is only one person I can talk to and that is my partner but it is worse for her and the one thing I can be is strong for her. Then there is this University researcher who wants to have a talk. She’s talked to my partner, and wants to talk to us both. My partner thinks it will do me good. I don’t know how to express these feelings inside without bursting. I want to support my partner, part of me thinks it would be good to release the emotions but I can’t risk overwhelming her in the way I am sometimes overwhelmed. I’ll say I’ll do it and then see.”
If the participant’s thoughts and feelings were similar to the above then it is understandable why he was ambivalent about being interviewed.

Infertility has been seen as a form of complex bereavement consisting of multiple loses (Adler, 1991; Lechner et al., 2007) with levels of distress in women recorded as high as those suffering from serious medical conditions (Domar et al., 1992; Domar et al., 1993). However, recent research shows that, post infertility treatment, men who did not become fathers suffered poorer mental health than those who had become fathers (Fisher et al., 2010). In their conclusions Fisher et al (p.6) state ‘…that stereotypes that infertile men conflate fertility and masculinity, are less distressed than women about potential loss of parenthood, and adjust more readily to childlessness appear inaccurate.’ Men may or may not be ‘typical’ by choice but there are many social factors that influence their behavior and how their behavior is perceived. The belief that men are not interested in taking part in research, and their absence ‘condemned to be meaningful’ (Lloyd, 1996: p.451), reflects a lack of insight by the research community. I feel I must stress here these are my own reflections based on my research on involuntarily childless men and not a particular person or persons.

Useful websites
Infertility Network UK: http://www.infertilitynetworkuk.com
The Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority: http://www.hfea.gov.uk/index.html
Mensfe: http://www.mensfe.net

References
Adler, N. E. (1991). Forward. In Stanton, A. L. & Dunkel-Schetter, C. (Eds.), Infertility: Perspectives from Stress and Coping Research (pp. vii-ix). Plenum Press: New York.
Domar, A., Broome, A., Zuttermeister, P. C., Seibel, M. & Friedman, R. (1992). The prevalence and predictability of depression in infertile women. Fertility and Sterility, 58, 1158-1163.
Domar, A. D., Zuttermeister, P. C. & Friedman, R. (1993). The psychological impact of infertility: a comparison with patients with other medical conditions. Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics and Gynaecology, 14(Special issue), 45-52.
Fisher, J. R. W., Baker, G. H. W. & Hammarberg, K. (2010). Long-term health, well-being, life satisfaction, and attitudes toward parenthood in men diagnosed as infertile: challenges to gender stereotypes and implications for practice. Fertility and Sterility, 94(2), 574-580.
Lechner, L., Bolman, C. & Van Dalen, A. (2007). Definite involuntary childlessness: associations between coping, social support and psychological distress. Hum. Reprod., 22(1), 288-294.
Lloyd, M. (1996). Condemned to be meaningful: Non-response in studies of men and infertility. Sociology of Health & Illness, 18(4), 433-454.

‘Using research to identify and address loneliness in older age’ by Anna Goodman, Policy and Research Officer, ‘Campaign to End Loneliness’

There is an ever-growing body of research and evidence around the issue of loneliness – that unwelcome feeling that occurs when there is a mismatch between the number and quality of relationships we want and those we have – in older age. There is a strong indication that loneliness and social isolation has a negative impact on our mental and physical health. Research also shows that social relationships are crucial to a good quality of life in older age.

We are learning more all the time but so far we have only scratched the surface, there is so much more that we –  as campaigners, researchers and practitioners – need to learn: from who is at risk, to what the best interventions are. The Campaign to End Loneliness and our network of academics and researchers are working to increase, develop and better share the research base around loneliness in older age.

As part of this project, we recently held a small workshop with Professor Christina Victor of Brunel University, who is examining data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing to answer a number of questions including: ‘who is lonely?’, ‘when are they lonely?’, ‘what implications does this have for practice?’. Her early findings indicate that:

  • Loneliness can be a self-fulfilling prophecy – if you expect to be lonely in later life, you are more likely to be lonely.
  • 40% of widows are lonely (but some actually become less lonely when they are widowed).
  • Loneliness is a fluid experience – someone who might feel lonely one month, won’t necessarily feel the same three months later.
  • Older men are just as lonely as older women.
  • Older people from BME communities are particularly vulnerable to loneliness

You can watch Professor Victor’s presentation in full here.

Implications for research and practice

Although a work in progress, this new research presents a number of challenges to organisations and charities providing support for older people. For example, we need to find ways to make our services more responsive to the highly individual and fluctuating nature of loneliness. This is no easy task, but during discussions workshop attendees talked about how building partnerships with GPs, registrars, community police teams, and carers groups (amongst others) could help them to achieve this. Notes from these discussions can be read here.

As if often the case, the more we learn about whom is lonely and when, the more questions we uncover for further research. More specifically, we need the academic community to help us demonstrate what the characteristics of different successful loneliness interventions are – and keep us informed of any further implications their research might have for practitioners.

We aim share the latest evidence around loneliness and isolation in a quarterly Research Bulletin, so please do get in touch if you have something you would like us to send to our 1,350+ supporter network.

For more information about the Campaign to End Loneliness, our Research Hub or the Research Bulletin, please contact Anna Goodman at anna@campaigntoendloneliness.org.uk.