B.C. courts no longer just for wealthy

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Great news from West coast LEAF, a B.C.-based organization using the law to further women’s equality, on the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision to strike down provincial court hearing fees. More below:

West Coast LEAF is thrilled to report that the Supreme Court of Canada has struck down BC’s court hearing fees as unconstitutional. This decision has huge implications for women’s equality and access to justice. Today, our highest court confirmed that the courts are not just for the wealthy. Today is a day to celebrate.

The case, called Trial Lawyers Association of British Columbia v. British Columbia (Attorney General), was originally a family law dispute in which the custody of the couple’s children was at issue. The mother made an application to waive the $3,600 court fee she was being charged to bring her case to court. After considering constitutional arguments by the Canadian Bar Association and the Trial Lawyers Association among others, the BC Supreme Court ruled that the fees were unconstitutional. On appeal, the BC Court of Appeal overturned the lower court decision. Today’s decision from Canada’s highest court confirms the BC Supreme Court decision.

West Coast LEAF intervened to argue that hearing fees in family law cases have an unequal impact on women because women are less likely to be able to afford them than men due to their unequal economic status. West Coast LEAF argued that hearing fees violate women’s equality and security rights and the principles of fundamental justice, and should be struck down on that basis.

The Supreme Court of Canada found that while the Province has the power to levy hearing fees, they cannot do so in a way that deprives litigants of access to the superior courts. If fees are imposed, judges must be given enough leeway to waive the fees if paying them would cause a litigant undue hardship by requiring her to forgo other reasonable expenses. The hearing fees were declared an unconstitutional barrier to access to justice and struck down. The Court left it open to the BC government to impose a new fee structure that meets the constitutional requirements.

As you know, West Coast LEAF has been fighting for improved access to justice for over a decade. For family law in particular, the dire state of legal aid in BC since the massive budget cuts in 2002 has meant that women have been denied their legal rights and a fair process for determining them. Today’s decision is a major victory for access to justice and for women’s equality. The Court has confirmed that access to justice is constitutionally protected, and that the justice system is not just for those who can afford it.