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Access to Justice: Rise Legal Centre: Bridging the gap for women | Beverley McLachlin

Wednesday, January 29, 2020 @ 8:20 AM | By Beverley McLachlin


Beverley McLachlin %>
Beverley McLachlin
Happy new year to all of you. I am pleased to use my first column of the new decade to begin a periodic series showcasing access to justice in action across Canada. This column is an important way to bring attention to critical issues and an opportunity to highlight the impact that so many of you are having in responding to the access to justice crisis.

I have chosen to start my series close to home, with an organization dedicated to improving access to justice for women who desperately need legal help but can’t afford it — the Rise Women’s Legal Centre in Vancouver. Rise is a wonderful example of identifying a serious gap in access to justice and finding workable ways to bridge that gap.

Rise is a community legal centre serving all individuals who self-identify as women, providing unbundled legal services in family law and some immigration matters. Students studying at the Faculty of Law, UBC, receive credit for spending a semester at Rise, working under the direction of legal staff to help the women who come to the clinic seeking help. Volunteer lawyers supplement the work of the staff lawyers and students.

I have had the pleasure of visiting Rise and meeting its executive director, Kim Hawkins, as well as legal staff and students. I came away deeply impressed by how Rise is providing the legal help women need to work through their problems and build a secure footing for new lives.

Tackling access to justice for women

Rise is based on the premise that “access to justice is a women’s equality issue.” I agree. Women are disproportionately disadvantaged by legal aid funding decisions, which typically cut resources in areas that affect women disproportionately — family law and poverty law. Numerous studies show that income reduction as a result of marital breakdown, child care responsibilities and family violence, mean that women are less likely than men to be able to afford a lawyer.

Rise meets the challenge

Rise offers unbundled legal family and immigration law services to women who do not qualify for legal aid. It serves approximately 600 women in British Columbia every year. Last term alone, Rise handled 216 separate matters. And Rise meets this need with only six full-time staff members running a team of six upper-year law students and one to two social work students who work at the clinic full time for one term.

Telling real-life stories

The impact of a clinic like Rise is found not just in the numbers of women served but in the outcomes for individual women able to exercise their legal rights. Here are two recent success stories:

  • Rise recently worked with a woman who had arrived in Canada with an extremely abusive partner. They had applied for permanent residence status as a family and she was afraid if she left him she would jeopardize her and her children’s stay in Canada. She eventually had the courage to leave with their three children and Rise successfully assisted her with the application for permanent residence on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. This client is now able to look for employment.
  • Last year Rise appeared in court on behalf of a client whose ex-partner had refused to pay child support according to an agreement that was completed in a different country, leaving the mother and children in poverty for many years. Rise obtained an award of nearly $70,000 in retroactive child support which the client is now receiving in instalments.

Innovative outcomes

Rise has begun to serve an increased number of clients with intersecting family and immigration issues. Dealing with these issues on a holistic basis provides real-life solutions for clients and supports the growing recognition that people’s life problems are often a complex mix of legal issues that require a blended legal response.

Another spin-off from Rise is the new “incubator lawyer” model. Two former students who worked at Rise have now been called to the bar and are building a practice together, incubated at Rise. This practice serves another marginalized group that is underserved: women who do qualify for legal aid and are experiencing violence. It is often challenging for women in violent circumstances to find a lawyer willing to take their case for legal aid rates. This practice, already housed at a safe space for women, will allow these vulnerable women access to legal support.

Still work to do 

There are more clients and more issues than Rise, a small organization on a shoestring budget, can respond to alone. Among unmet needs, Hawkins highlights the issue of women facing issues of division of matrimonial property. Rise can provide simple property division legal support, but more complex cases are beyond its reach — they may not be appropriate for students and may pose liability issues (property valuation often exceeds lawyer insurance coverage). Rise too often is faced with the prospect of women abandoning the pursuit of their economic entitlements because they can’t get help making the claim.

Rise stands as an example of principled and innovative efforts to make a difference in the lives of people who need access to justice. I look forward to taking you across the country with me over the course of the year to profile other access to justice initiatives.

You can learn more about the Rise Women’s Legal Centre at womenslegalcentre.ca.

The Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin served as chief justice of Canada from 2000 to mid-December 2017. She now works as an arbitrator and mediator in Canada and internationally and also sits as a justice of Singapore’s International Commercial Court and the Hong Kong Final Court of Appeal. She chairs the Action Committee on Access to Justice in Civil and Family Matters.