This is an updated version of a story originally published in the Spring 2016 issue of SHE magazine.

When Maya* left her abusive husband, she feared for her children’s safety. To protect them, she waived her financial and property rights in exchange for an agreement that her husband wouldn’t seek custody of the children. He later changed his mind and took her to court to demand access.

Maya couldn’t afford a lawyer, but didn’t qualify for legal aid. For guidance, she turned to the Jane Doe Legal Advice Clinic, a service that was delivered by West Coast LEAF (Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund) in Vancouver, BC.

The Clinic helped women like Maya, who would otherwise struggle with difficult legal problems on their own. The Jane Doe Clinic helped to lay the foundation for West Coast LEAF to launch Rise Women's Legal Centre, which offers a spectrum of free and low-cost legal services related to family law. The growing waiting list is just one indication of the urgent, ongoing need for the Centre's services.

“Women sometimes say they’re not going to leave an abusive relationship because they fear they won’t qualify for legal aid and will have to represent themselves in court against their abusive ex-partner. They’re also terrified of losing custody of their children,” said Shahnaz Rahman, Manager of Community Outreach.

“If a woman doesn’t have access to legal representation, her access to things like fair custody arrangements or property division is compromised,” Shahnaz said.

Even if a woman does qualify for legal aid, the hours delegated to her case may not be enough, so legal support services are crucial. By helping women, the Jane Doe Legal Advice Clinic staff also gained a better understanding of the systemic legal barriers that need to be addressed.

The Clinic provided free legal advice to 25-30 women a month through its central office and in partnership with two multicultural organizations, where translators accompanied immigrant and refugee women. “Women whose first language was not English benefited from interpreted legal advice sessions within a supportive and familiar environment,” Rahman said.

Since most community workers are not trained in family law, the organization also offered free training for
service providers in other organizations so they could better help women navigate the legal system.
Rahman said feedback from clients clearly showed the Clinic made a huge difference.

Maya got the help she needed to prepare an affidavit and create a legal strategy for her case. Thanks to this support, she said: “This is the first time in months that I feel like I can hold my head up high.” 
*Not her real name.

The Jane Doe Legal Advice Clinic was delivered by West Coast LEAF (Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund) in Vancouver, BC, and received funding from the Canadian Women’s Foundation. West Coast LEAF now offers legal services through Rise Women's Legal Centre.