The Peter A. Allard School of Law and West Coast LEAF partnered to create Rise Women’s Legal Centre, which opened on May 24, 2016. The first of its kind in BC, the clinic was created to provide legal services to low income women in the Lower Mainland, focusing particularly on legal representation in family law and related areas.
“Legal aid for family law matters has been drastically cut back since 2002, so much so that only very low income people qualify, and even those who qualify only get services for high conflict cases, almost always where women have been subject to violence from their spouses,” explained West Coast LEAF Executive Director Kasari Govender. “Family law legal aid is provided to less than 25% of the clients than were served before the cuts. When a woman meets these restrictive criteria, she rarely gets more time with a lawyer than it takes to get a protection order and is usually left to represent herself in trying to secure custody of her children and resolve other important issues related to her family, home and financial security.”
“The crisis in public legal services for family law has a particularly significant impact on women, since women are less likely to be able to afford a lawyer and most often have their safety at stake,” explained Govender. “A woman’s capacity to be independent often depends on her ability to resolve disputes over spousal support, child custody and property division – all issues that have a tremendous impact on women’s equality, and the safety of women and their families.”
“There are a high number of women in BC who must navigate the system unrepresented,” said Janine Benedet, Professor and Co-Director for the Centre for Feminist Legal Studies at the Allard School of Law. “Rise Women’s Legal Centre will provide legal advice and representation to women who have no other means of getting legal help, while also creating an opportunity for law students to serve the community and gain important practical experience working directly with clients.”
“There is such a clear and pressing need for this service, and we believe that Rise Women’s Legal Centre will play a pivotal role in helping women in BC access justice,” said the Centre’s Executive director, Kim Hawkins. “Students and lawyers will work together to provide women with legal advice on family law and related matters, file documents in court, represent them in their hearings and generally assist women with accessing their legal rights.”
The Centre's mandate also includes identifying cases that have the potential to advance women’s legal rights at a systemic level. Govender explained that “The Centre will increase West Coast LEAF’s capacity to challenge systemic barriers to equality in BC and across the country. It will allow us to work directly with women struggling with the laws that maintain those barriers and thereby expand our impact. After years of research and advocacy on access to justice for women in BC, West Coast LEAF is thrilled to have this opportunity to address the need directly.”
In 2017, the Y.P. Heung Foundation donated $150,000 in support of the Rise Women’s Legal Centre. “The Foundation and its advisors are proud to support a local program that helps women caught in the gap between being unqualified for legal aid and unable to afford a lawyer,” said Mr. Raymond Heung, Trustee of the Y. P. Heung Foundation. “We learned that the genesis of the name ‘Rise’ is the hope that clients will be able to rise above difficult times by advancing their legal matters to resolution and this strongly resonates with the mission of the Foundation.”