News / Vancouver

Advocates say social assistance laws put women at risk in B.C.

Requiring women to declare their partners a spouse after three months makes them less able to leave violent relationships, according to West Coast LEAF.

Kendra Milne, Director of Law Reform for West Coast Leaf, a women's legal education action fund, speaks to the media outside B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver, B.C., on Monday August 24, 2015.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Kendra Milne, Director of Law Reform for West Coast Leaf, a women's legal education action fund, speaks to the media outside B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver, B.C., on Monday August 24, 2015.

British Columbia’s social assistance laws can prevent women from leaving violent relationships, say advocates who are pushing government for change.

Kendra Milne, director of law reform for West Coast Women’s Legal Education & Action Fund (LEAF), wants the province to make changes to the Employment and Assistance Act and Employment and Assistance for Persons with Disabilities Act to better protect vulnerable women and people with disabilities.

Under the current law, most couples aren’t considered spouses until they’ve lived together for two years and can choose to keep their finances completely separate beyond that.

But people on social assistance are subject to a completely different set of rules and must declare their partner as a spouse after three months.

That means a single mother on social assistance can quickly find herself cut off from welfare and become financially dependent on her partner, regardless if any financial assistance is being provided at all.

“When women are in newer relationships, it eliminates their ability to try on a new relationships because after three months they’re forced to be totally and 100 per cent dependent on the person they’re living with,” Milne told Metro, “which puts them at increased risk of violence and makes it harder for them to leave if they experience it.”

West Coast LEAF released a briefing note Monday urging government to apply the same definitions under B.C.’s Family Law to people on social assistance.

“If the government is going to assume that someone has access to another person’s income and assets, then they should only do that when there is actually evidence of that happening. We’re proposing that basically the income assistance laws line up with the rest of the laws that apply to everyone else in B.C.,” said Milne. “It’s a human rights issue because we know this disproportionally affects women and people with disabilities. It also makes a lot of common sense to make sure people have a common set of rules.”

The current laws for declaring dependents and spouses on social assistance have been on the books since 2006 and replaced “even worse” definitions that were in place before then, Milne said.

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