The Impact of the Lack of Legal Aid in Family Law Cases

Conclusions: opportunities for future research

The purpose of this report is to examine the impacts of the lack of or limited legal aid in family law matters. The discussion here is not meant to be exhaustive, but rather it intends to explore and highlight the significant challenges in accessing family legal aid. The lack of access to legal aid for family law particularly affects women, Indigenous peoples, marginalized groups, and those in remote and rural communities. The effect of the lack of access to legal aid services can be serious, for example: loss of parenting time, loss of appropriate child and spousal support, and loss of rights to matrimonial property and pensions.

Technology continues to be offered as a “solution” to address access to justice issues (e.g., web sites that provide legal information). While technology can play a significant role in improving access to justice and increasing the efficiency of the justice system, many technological responses to access to justice concerns have less value to those with limited education, poor literacy, cognitive problems, disabilities (invisible as well as visible), cultural differences or limited financial resources. This is particularly concerning for those in the North and rural areas, where there may not be legal aid offices or access to even basic services (e.g., legal information).

While in some jurisdictions legal aid funding has been stable or even increasing in real per capita terms, in others, legal aid budgets have not kept up with inflation and increases in population. In some jurisdictions, there have been cuts to the legal aid budget. Reductions in legal aid funding are concerning due to the negative consequences of the lack of access to family legal services on individuals (Addario, 1998; Brewin, & Stephens, 2004). One concern is that reduced funding and limited legal aid services increases self-representation, which in turn increases costs for the justice system, and imposes significant financial and human costs on parents and their children.

Buckley (2013) refers to the need for evidence-based legal aid policy making. Evidence-based research must also include listening and hearing from vulnerable and marginalized groups in society such as the recent Report on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (2019). Only then can society begin to appreciate the limitations of law and the justice system.

A possible research initiative could include mapping the challenges of limited legal aid funding, with the collaboration of academic researchers, federal/provincial/territorial partners, lawyers, legal organizations, and the judiciary. These stakeholders have important insights and knowledge about the impacts of lack of access to family legal aid, and may have ideas about how to improve the efficiency of legal aid services. In addition, community organizations and the public, who use and benefit from family legal aid, should be involved. The Alberta Legal Services Mapping project on the self-represented is a good example of mapping, and the benefits of obtaining information on the impacts.77 Long-term planning may also include rethinking social programs, understanding the effect of demographic changes in immigration and aging, and changes in the family justice system as it moves towards more unified family courts and greater emphasis on non-court dispute resolution. These types of issues will become more pressing if legal aid in general and family legal aid is being eroded or if coverage is being significantly reduced.

Footnotes

77 Stratton, M. (2007) at: https://www.cfcj-fcjc.org/sites/default/files/docs/2011/mapping-final-en.pdf (accessed June 24, 2019).