TORONTO — Nicole Bell was in the hospital recovering from an emergency C-section when her ex first threatened to kidnap their newborn daughter.
That began a six-year nightmare the Fraser Valley, B.C. mom describes as “by far the most terrible thing I’ve ever experienced in my life.”
After the baby was born in December 2012, the father was charged and put on probation for uttering threats. Months later, Bell initiated a court application to get full custody of their child. He fought it. At that point, Bell says she felt she had no choice but to get a lawyer.
“There was no way that I could even respond to the pleadings without getting a lawyer myself,” Bell told HuffPost Canada.
The single mother-of-two, who was on maternity leave caring for two children on $1,600 a month, applied for help from British Columbia’s legal aid agency, the Legal Services Society. Her application was denied because she had $8,000 in a Registered Retirement Savings Plan (RRSP).
“I basically had to liquidate the whopping $8,000 that I had,” Bell said.
She reapplied after draining her RRSP and putting the money toward debt and was awarded legal aid. The government offers a small number of paid hours a lawyer can work on each case — which Bell says her lawyer used up before they’d even had one court appearance.
‘I was ... horrified’
“I was in shock that under the circumstances, where there were such significant safety concerns, that I wasn’t allowed the help that I needed,” Bell said. “And I was even more, honestly, horrified that once I retained a lawyer, my hours were depleted and I couldn’t even account for what they were used for.”
She applied to change lawyers and was allowed, so the hours were reset.
But as the custody battle dragged on for six years, Bell had to reapply for legal aid four times, write affidavits and collect evidence herself to save her lawyer’s hours and sink more than $20,000 of her own money into paying for overages when the hours ran out anyway.
Bell represented herself about 25 per cent of the time because legal aid wouldn’t cover her costs and she simply couldn’t afford a lawyer. That meant corresponding with her ex’s “extremely intimidating” lawyer herself and going to court alone.
“It was all consuming … It was extremely stressful,” she said. “Basically, it felt like a full-time job to me.”
Throughout it all, Bell alleges that her ex never stopped threatening her and disobeying court orders not to have contact with her.
“Unless you go through it, you don’t know how insufficient the legal aid regime is.”
In order to keep qualifying for legal aid, Bell chose not to go back to work after maternity leave and went on social assistance. She and her two kids had to move into low-income housing.
“Unless you go through it, you don’t know how insufficient the legal aid regime is.”
Bell is not alone. Lawyers in B.C. say the province’s insufficient legal aid system has created a crisis.
“The problem of inadequate legal aid has rested on the shoulders of disadvantaged British Columbians and their service providers for too long,” wrote Jamie Maclaren, a lawyer hired by B.C.’s attorney general to review the system, in a report released in January.
“It has caused immense human suffering.”
2002 cuts were a ‘devastating’ turning point
Maclaren and others point to cuts made to legal aid by former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell as a “devastating” turning point for low-income people. Campbell’s government slashed funding for legal aid by almost 40 per cent in 2002, eliminating all legal clinics that offered family law services, the type Bell needed, and poverty law services, which help people with issues like government benefits, evictions and illegal firings.
“Those cuts were complete in the sense that they dismantled B.C.’s community legal clinic system completely,” Maclaren told HuffPost in an interview. “It had a devastating effect on access to justice in B.C.”
He says he felt “massive disappointment and disbelief” when he found out that Ontario Premier Doug Ford will cut funding for the system in this province by 40 per cent. Ford’s government, which hired former B.C. premier Campbell to do a review of Ontario’s finances, announced in April that it would slash $164 million from Legal Aid Ontario’s $395 million in provincial funding by 2022.
Legal Aid Ontario provides certificates that eligible people can use to hire a lawyer and operates 73 community legal clinics with lawyers and paralegals onsite.
Maclaren actually recommended that B.C.’s government design a legal clinic system like Ontario’s in his report.
“I mentioned Ontario’s clinic system time and again in that report, not expecting that the Ford government would begin to dismantle that really impactful system.”
Lawyers in Ontario are beginning to worry that the Ford government cuts will decimate the province’s legal clinic system.
At a background briefing in June, officials from Legal Aid Ontario told HuffPost how they would hand down budget cuts to legal clinics. The cuts resulted in layoffs at multiple clinics and some workers are now taking voluntary pay cuts to keep their jobs.
Watch: The federal government is funding one part of Ontario’s legal aid system after the Ford government’s cuts. Story continues after video.
The agency only made about $70 million to $75 million in cuts to its services this year. It will have to find another $90 million in savings next year and the year after to account for the Progressive Conservatives’ cuts.
“There’s very little more we can do on the clinic side right now,” the chair of Legal Aid Ontario, Charles Harnick, said at the briefing.
“The only other way to establish real savings in the area of the clinics is around some kind of restructuring,” he said. “We are not there yet. We’re certainly going to be talking about that.”
The Ministry of the Attorney General is working with Legal Aid Ontario on what it calls a “modernization review” of its services.
“In British Columbia, what we saw was essentially the elimination of the clinic system.”
The lawyer who leads the Association of Community Legal Clinics of Ontario is worried that will leave Ontarians in the same boat British Columbians are in.
“In British Columbia, what we saw was essentially the elimination of the clinic system. They used to have a comprehensive clinic system, just like we have here in Ontario, helping the most vulnerable and the most disadvantaged. With the stroke of a pen by the Gordon Campbell government, it was eliminated,” Lenny Abramowicz told HuffPost.
“This is what we’re worried the modernization is about ... Does it mean eliminating half the clinics in the system?”
A spokesman for Legal Aid Ontario said it’s too early to say what the modernization project will entail.
“Future directions for all our work – not just with clinics but everything else – will be examined as a part of this project,” Graeme Burk told HuffPost in an email.
Lawyers in B.C. warn that closing legal clinics would be a destructive move.
“This province is a cautionary tale,” said Raji Mangat, director of litigation at West Coast LEAF, a non-profit organization that represents B.C. women in human rights and equality cases.
Her organization is taking the B.C. government to court over its legal aid system with Bell as the lead plaintiff.
In the case, Single Mothers’ Alliance vs. B.C., West Coast LEAF will argue that the legal aid system discriminates against women and actually harms women who try to use it.
She said women are put in dangerous situations when they’re forced to represent themselves and end up cross-examining their abusive ex-partners in court. The strict limits on hours for lawyers also gives abusive partners an opportunity to hurt their partners, Mangat said, because they can force court appearances and delay the process to purposefully use up the other party’s hours.
Bell says that her ex did exactly that. She alleges that he bragged about using up her lawyer’s hours so that she would be left without representation.
“He boasted about purposely dragging matters on to exhaust my legal aid hours.”
Their challenge is expected to be heard at B.C.’s Supreme Court in 2020.
Bell hopes it will force the government to make changes to its legal aid system.
“Hopefully, through all the turmoil and torment that I went through, processes will be changed so that other women and children won’t have to deal with this.”
“By making such huge cuts to pivotal funding, that’s putting a lot of people at risk.”
The fact that women in Ontario may now lose access to legal aid makes her feel “really disheartened,” Bell said.
“It’s devastating to know that in 2019, where family violence seems to be more recognized than it ever has been, we’re still regressing in a lot of ways,” she said.
“By making such huge cuts to pivotal funding, that’s putting a lot of people at risk. Those impacts, I can say from firsthand experience, will stay with people for the rest of their lives.”
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