↗ Following last year’s 28% budget increase ($299,000) for legal aid, and through a partnership with the Law Foundation of PEI, the province hired one additional family law legal aid lawyer for the Legal Aid Office in Summerside. The position has been filled by a bilingual lawyer. This is good news and will reduce waiting lists.
↗ Increased funding also enabled additional referrals to outside counsel when legal aid services cannot be provided by a staff lawyer, though we understand these fees may be paid at less than competitive rates and be subject to a maximum number of hours.
↘ Despite these new investments and the new hiring, we hear that access to family law legal aid is still challenging for too many women. Women in crisis and in danger do not face waiting lists for lawyers, but we continue to hear that they face delays accessing justice. We continue to support priority placement and full funding for women in the greatest and most urgent need, including women with children. However, for women whose situations are clearly serious but are not assessed as urgent, waiting lists have been long, especially in Charlottetown. Women without dependants, senior women, and low-income working women face the greatest challenges to accessing assistance. We hear that some women who can’t afford a lawyer simply feel helpless and hopeless and give in to the demands of their spouse, just to get out of the relationship. This cannot be good for families or for society.
↘ There is a federal aspect to this issue. Historically across Canada, financial cut-offs to access legal aid have been too low, and the cut-offs have not kept pace with increases in the cost of living. It has become harder and harder for low-to-middle-income Canadians to hire lawyers in the private sector, and at the same time it has been harder and harder for them to meet the eligibility requirements for legal aid.
This is an excerpt from the PEI Advisory Council on the Status of Women 2009 Equality Report Card for PEI, released in June 2009 and based on information updated to May 30, 2009.