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Access to Justice: How the Rise Women’s Legal Centre helps the most marginalized | Thomas Cromwell

Friday, February 23, 2018 @ 9:28 AM | By Thomas Cromwell


Thomas Cromwell %>
Thomas Cromwell
One of the biggest of the access to justice challenges is the gap in availability of legal services. So many people fall in the gap between eligibility for legal aid and the ability to retain private counsel. One innovative initiative to help fill parts of this gap is the Rise Women’s Legal Centre in Vancouver.

I recently had the good fortune to be invited to the centre and to have the opportunity to see first-hand what impressive and important work it is doing to help close the legal services gap for women, especially those dealing with domestic abuse.

I sat down with Rise’s indefatigable executive director, Kim Hawkins, and here is what we talked about.

TC: Can you tell me how Rise Women’s Legal Centre came into being and what it does?   

KH: Rise Women’s Legal Centre is a non-profit legal clinic based in Vancouver that  provides family law services to self-identifying women. Rise was founded in 2016 through a partnership between West Coast Legal Education and Action Fund (West Coast LEAF) and the Peter A. Allard School of Law at the University of British Columbia.

Rise was a direct response to the crisis in access to justice in British Columbia, where legal aid funding is one of the lowest per capita in Canada and vast numbers of people have no choice but to represent themselves in court.

Dramatic cuts to legal aid in 2002, which slashed the Legal Services Society’s budget by almost 40 per cent over three years, resulted in the elimination of all poverty law services and severely restricted family law funding in this province. Further cuts to services occurred in 2009 and 2010 when five LSS regional centres as well as the surviving family law clinic were closed. Since that time there have been some pilot projects to improve legal aid, but nothing has come close to replacing the services that were lost.

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The Honourable Thomas Cromwell and Kim Hawkins, executive director of Rise Women’s Legal Centre

Although these cuts have impacted everyone who needs access to a lawyer in B.C., they have had a disproportionate impact on women, who are more likely than men to be seeking assistance with poverty and family law issues. The impact of these cuts was exacerbated by other factors such as the more severe impact of marital breakdown on women’s economic security, the gender pay gap and the unequal risk of family violence, in concert with cuts to other women’s services and programs. For example, the Ministry of Women’s Equality and the Human Rights Commission were eliminated (the HRC is now being reinstated), funding to women’s centres was cut, and income assistance was changed so that the “employability” status for single parents was lowered from the time their child turns 7 to when their child turns 3.

Fifteen years later, in their “Agenda for Justice,” published in February 2017, the CBA-BC Branch noted that since 2002 “the Legal Services Society has had no funding to provide family law legal services for the majority of family law matters, including child support, spousal support, division of assets and general custody” and called “for adequate funding to ensure that people who qualify for family law legal aid (71 per cent of whom are women) receive representation for services that promote family security and financial stability.”

Rise was conceived of as a one-stop shop where women could receive free, low-barrier legal assistance with a range of issues. However, since opening we have kept our focus squarely on family law, due to the overwhelming need for this service.

TC: You mentioned that the Peter A. Allard School of Law at UBC was a founding partner. Are law students involved in the operation of the centre?

KH: Services at Rise are provided primarily by upper-year law students from UBC participating in an experiential learning externship. The students, who are supervised by on-site lawyers at Rise, learn practical skills in a social justice environment, focusing on the unique circumstances of women and their navigation of the justice system.

This is the first of a two-part series. Read part two here.

The Honourable Thomas Cromwell served 19 years as an appellate judge and chairs the Chief Justice’s Action Committee on Access to Justice in Civil and Family Matters. He retired from the Supreme Court of Canada in September of 2016 and is now senior counsel to the national litigation practice at Borden Ladner Gervais.