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.