New BC legal AidSupreme Court strikes down B.C. court fees for barring access to justice system

Victoria: BC Minister of Justice, Suzanne Anton announced two new legal aid projects at Victoria’s Justice Access Centre (JAC) are focused on providing B.C. families with the services they need to help them with their family law issues.

Suzanne Anton and Tom Christensen, chair of the board for the Legal Services Society (LSS) announced the appointment of a new full-time family duty counsel at the Victoria JAC and a second project that will increase the services available through the Family LawLINE.

The new lead family duty counsel will provide people with early legal advice, in addition to supporting a variety of other services at the JAC. Clients will be able to book appointments in advance and have access to the same lawyer for a repeat visit, if necessary.

The Family LawLINE provides eligible British Columbians with legal advice and information over the telephone to better serve people in remote areas of the province who may be unable to access existing in-person services. This pilot project expands the available services up to six hours with the same lawyer for a single legal issue, where previously, people received three hours in total, with no continuity of service from the same lawyer.

These pilot projects will complement existing services that provide clients with meaningful, consistent and timely legal advice. B.C. families will be better supported to resolve their disputes early and often out of court, saving them time and money.

The projects announced today are two of a total of five justice transformation projects Government is funding through a targeted $6 million investment over the next three years. They were developed collaboratively between the Ministry of Justice and the LSS and are consistent with recommendations made in its report, Making Justice Work, the Cowper report and commitments made in the White Paper on Justice Reform: Part 2.

Justice Access Centres serve as a one-stop centre for people seeking help with family and civil problems such as separation and divorce, housing, income assistance and employment disputes.

Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Suzanne Anton said, “Our government recognizes the importance of supporting legal aid and is committed to innovative solutions that help families get the legal services they need. The new full time family duty counsel in Victoria and province-wide expansion of the Family LawLINE will provide British Columbians with increased access to legal advice and information. We believe that by providing families with consistent and timely legal advice and services, they will be better supported to resolve their disputes earlier and often outside of a courtroom.”

Quick Facts:

  • In total, government is providing the Legal Services Society with $74.5 million in 2014/15.
  • This includes a $2 million annual increase over three years to fund the expansion of legal aid services in family and criminal law.
  • The Legal Services Society is an independent organization that operates and administers the legal aid program in B.C.
  • Individuals can apply for a legal aid lawyer in-person at a legal aid office, or over the phone.
  • Anyone with a family legal problem or question can call the Family LawLINE toll-free at 1 866 577-2525.


Supreme Court strikes down B.C. court fees for barring access to justice system

Ottawa: British Columbia has the right to charge administrative court fees, but they can’t be so high as to prevent litigants from accessing the legal system, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled.

The justices said the effect of the B.C. fee scheme would be to deny some people access to the courts, so they struck it down as unconstitutional by a 6-1 margin.

“When hearing fees deprive litigants of access to the superior courts, they infringe the basic right of citizens to bring their cases to court,” Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin wrote in a landmark ruling on the issue of public access to the courts. “That point is reached when the hearing fees in question cause undue hardship to the litigant who seeks the adjudication of the superior court.”

The advocacy group, West Coast LEAF, which was an intervener in the case, said the ruling marks a major victory for access to justice.

The group argued that charging fees in family law cases was particularly unfair to women as they are less likely to be able to afford them because of “their unequal economic status.”

“This will mean improved access to justice for women in family law,” Kasari Govender, the group’s executive director, said in a statement.

“It also means that the highest court in Canada has confirmed that access to justice is constitutionally protected and that the justice system is not just for those who can afford it. This is a day to celebrate.”

The case stems from a child-custody dispute in which a woman said she could not afford the $3,600 she was charged for a 10-day trial.

B.C.’s superior court originally ruled the fees unconstitutional, because, while the very poorest are exempt, they still apply to other people of modest means and prevent them from pursuing their legal claims.

The B.C. Court of Appeal agreed, but widened the exemption to include not only impoverished people but other people in need.

In this particular case, a mother and father decided to end their relationship, but had to decide who would get custody of their daughter. The mother wanted to take their daughter to live with her in Europe, but the father wanted to keep her in B.C.

In order to get a court date, the woman, because she was the plaintiff, had to agree to pay the court administrative fee. The trial judge deferred the issue of the court fees until the end of the proceedings.

The woman was “not an ‘impoverished person’ in the ordinary sense of the word,” Thursday’s ruling said.

She was a qualified veterinary surgeon in Europe, but had not worked in the year leading up to the court action. She and her daughter were supported by the child’s father.

The woman had $24,500 in savings, but other lawyer’s fees depleted that, the ruling said.

“A fee that is so high that it requires litigants who are not impoverished to sacrifice reasonable expenses in order to bring a claim may, absent adequate exemptions, be unconstitutional because it subjects litigants to undue hardship, thereby effectively preventing access to the courts,” McLachlin wrote.

The case centered on a section of the Constitution Act, 1867, which deals with jurisdictional issues of the superior courts of the provinces.

The Supreme Court upheld the trial court ruling that the fees violated Section 96 of the act.

“Indeed, it is their very book of business. To prevent this business being done strikes at the core of the jurisdiction of the superior courts protected by s.96 of the Constitution Act, 1867,” the ruling said.

“As a result, hearing fees that deny people access to the courts infringe the core jurisdiction of the superior courts.”

The court fees were set on a sliding scale. There was no fee for the first three days, but days four to 10 cost $500 each and the charge rose to $800 for every day over 10.

With inputs from Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press