Category Goals: Access to family law legal aid continues to be a challenge for Island women. Most calls to the PEI Status of Women office continue to be from women who need a lawyer’s advice. In many cases, they cannot afford a lawyer. We expect government to continue to place high priority on ensuring women and families have access to justice.
Focus Group Highlights: In a focus group, participants (including women facing violence) reported they are still facing the kinds of barriers that led to the Justice Options for Women project. They reported the need for less intimidating court options, supports for women to stand up in court (to stand up for themselves and stand up against abusers), and equitable treatment of people under the law. They wanted programs and services for people facing violence – and for abusers – to be available in the mainstream, with no stigma for asking for help.
Participants in a focus group put a strong emphasis on needs related to family law. Among other things, they were looking for affordable or free legal counsel for all families that need it, coaching about court processes, and better access to information and help to sort out child support and custody. They found hard-to- understand terms such as “Maintenance Enforcement” alienating and discouraging. They wanted information sessions to provide clear, plain language information about family law across the province and through neutral public locations, such as Access PEI centres. The Advisory Council suggests CLIA’s work to provide clear legal information could valuably be expanded, with more resources.
A major flaw of the justice system is its historical focus on property rights. Focus group participants were baffled by sentences that seem to value property over people.
Many of the needs focus group participants identified could conceivably be addressed by a domestic violence court option built on a strong model.
Conclusions: Members of the Advisory Council recognize that access to legal aid for family matters is complicated. It is difficult to imagine an amount of government funding that would keep pace with demand. We need to find more diverse, out-of-court options for people, and to promote them and make them accessible. For as long as traditional court-based justice approaches remain the primary way of settling family disputes, demand will continue to outpace government funding for help. For now, and for as long as the court-based model is prominent, lack of access to legal aid will have negative effects for women and their families.
More generally, many other issues discussed in this Equality Report Card have an impact on the justice system, including addictions, homelessness, and mental health problems. Future Equality Report Cards would benefit from looking at activities that depend on partnerships, policies, and programs at every stage of the justice system, from community safety, crime reduction, and early intervention, to court services, sentencing, Corrections, and reintegration of offenders.
ACCESS TO JUSTICE: C
This is an excerpt from the PEI Advisory Council on the Status of Women 2011 Equality Report Card for PEI, released in June 2011 and based on information updated to May 30, 2011. The Advisory Council is republishing one area of assessment each week on this blog. For more information, visit the Advisory Council on the Status of Women website.