News / Vancouver

Rise women’s legal clinic helped 175 clients in first five months

Gaps and barriers in justice system persist for lower-income women, says one client who says the new centre was a life-line for her family.

“I was in a grey zone,” said Anne, a 51-year-old single mother. “It was so hard to know where I could turn.”

The North Shore resident and mother of two — who asked not to be identified fearing it might impact an ongoing legal case — was involved in a decade-long custody battle with her ex-husband.

But despite having a “decent” income from her retail job, she had racked up significant debts from the legal proceedings that followed her divorce 11 years earlier — she estimated she spent $50,000 on lawyers’ fees.

“On paper, my income was too high to get legal aid,” she explained, “but I didn’t have enough funds to hire a lawyer.

“When the situation between my ex-husband and children escalated, I wasn’t sure what else I could do, but I knew I needed to take some form of legal action to protect them.”

A friend in the legal profession told her about a newly formed legal clinic for lower-income women caught in the gap between legal aid and affording a lawyer. The Rise Women’s Legal Centre, at 201-456 West Broadway Ave., opened its doors on May 24.

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Staffed by University of B.C. law students and their professional mentors, the clinic took on Anne’s case.

“In 48 hours, I was in their offices,” she said. “I found support, validation, help and resources there … I’d never felt validated before.”

The centre’s executive director told Metro that in the five months since opening, the clinic has served roughly 175 women for free thanks to enlisting nine law students who gained hands-on clinical experience towards their degrees.

The clinic has managed to help women close up to 60 case files, explained Kim Hawkins in a phone interview, leaving another 110 cases ongoing. Although some of the completed cases were more “summary advice files,” she said, others required more intensive involvement — including some court appearances and complex applications.

“We really didn’t know what to expect when we opened,” Hawkins said. “All we knew was that the need was out there.

“We didn’t know how many people would find us or connect with us, but the great thing is people are finding us. The downside is that we’re not big enough to meet all the need that’s out there; we’ve had a waitlist since we opened.”

Hawkins admitted she doesn’t “like the fact that people have to wait” because by the time a woman involved in the justice system reaches out for help, their case may be “time sensitive” — for instance one who needed Supreme Court accompaniment one week later. Like in that example, Rise isn’t always able to take on every case — but clinic experts can offer advice or referrals, and at least “maybe get them on the right path,” Hawkins said.

But funding, which comes from UBC and an anonymous private donor, isn’t enough to clear the backlogged waitlist. The centre so far gets no funding from government or legal aid. It also relies on donations from a growing list of B.C. lawyers who know all too well the limits to current legal aid funding in the province.

“So many lawyers know how inaccessible legal services for low-income women are,” Hawkins explained. “The real eye-opener for us at the clinic was how many people have been struggling in the legal system by themselves for so long — women are coming in who have navigated the system on their own for years.

“I’m so blown away by what so many of our clients have managed to do on their own. Others have struggled more and haven’t done things in the best way, but there have been a few cases that we’ve really been able to make a difference in the way their cases ended and the turn their lives have taken.”

For Anne, there should be government funding for services like Rise, and she hopes they can spread more widely.

Eventually, thanks to Rise, she said she successfully obtained a restraining order against her ex-husband over him “physically assaulting” their oldest son in an incident he told the court was simply a “rite of passage” for teens.

And after he enrolled in a support program, the clinic helped her apply to rescind the order so their son could resume contact with his dad.

“We need to have something like Rise in every city in Canada,” she said, “to be somehow funded by the government in some way. They can get private donors, but more money needs to be funnelled into services like this that help families.

“It takes a tremendous amount of courage to stand up. It’s nice to have these students there learning with mentors and advocating on behalf of the client. It’s a win-win for everybody.”

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