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Free legal aid a ‘game-changer’ for those fleeing family violence in B.C.

‘Access to much-needed legal representation has been a significant barrier,’ says Ann Davis rep
Patti MacAhonic, executive director of Ann Davis Transition Society. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress file)

An injection of $29.1 million from the provincial government for free legal aid to those fleeing family violence is going to be nothing short of a game-changer.

“This is wonderful news,” said Patti MacAhonic, executive director of the Ann Davis Transition Society in Chilliwack.

“We provide legal advocacy services but access to much-needed legal representation has been a significant barrier.”

Up until this point, the likelihood that those with the “deepest pockets” would win in the family-law arena has created an unfair playing field for women — particularly during custody disputes or in division of assets.

“This is a significant win for women and children and we are extremely happy to see this,” MacAhonic added.

Partners in this legal-aid expansion effort included the provincial government, Legal Aid BC and the Centre for Family Equity, according to the Feb. 16 release.

Chilliwack-Kent MLA Kelli Paddon, who is also Parliamentary Secretary for Gender Equity, said she sees potential for it being a game-changer.

“We know family violence too often impacts women, and far too often children are caught up in the trauma,” Paddon said. “These new supports will make a difference for many people who are rebuilding their lives.”

The new clinic addresses a longstanding constitutional challenge to the family law legal aid system by the Centre for Family Equity, which was formerly known as the Single Mothers’ Alliance.

“When someone is fleeing family violence, they are often experiencing the worst trauma of their lives,” said Niki Sharma, B.C. Attorney General in a release from LEAF. “With these changes, we are taking action to further improve services and better support people leaving dangerous situations.”

Funding for the clinic is over three years from the province, and the clinic will be operated by Legal Aid BC.

The trauma-informed law clinic will offer both in-person and virtual services, and the new clinic is expected to open before the end of this year.

“This is a historic day for access to justice in B.C.,” Michael Bryant, Legal Aid BC chief executive officer. “It’s the largest expansion of family law legal aid in a generation.”

Legal Aid BC will draw on community input and the expertise of fellow agencies to develop and implement operations at the clinic. Applicants must be financially eligible for Legal Aid BC family law services and be experiencing family violence as well as one or more family law issues covered by standard representation services.

“Two decades ago, the provincial government significantly cut family law legal aid services. Following these cuts, many single moms could not get the help they needed in incredibly difficult circumstances involving family violence,” said Raji Mangat, West Coast LEAF executive director.

“This expansion will provide a historic level of access to legal aid for people who often struggled to navigate the family law system on their own.”

READ MORE: $29.1M a big boost for family law legal aid

Jennifer Feinberg

About the Author: Jennifer Feinberg

I have been a Chilliwack Progress reporter for 20+ years, covering city hall, Indigenous, business, and climate change stories.
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