The Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF) has filed a submission to the Law Society of Ontario (LSO) Access to Justice Consultation. LEAF argues that access to justice is an equality issue—especially for women and marginalized groups—and makes recommendations to help the Law Society of Ontario’s Access to Justice Initiative better respond to these equality concerns.
While access to justice is important for all Canadians, obstacles to access have a particularly acute impact on women and marginalized groups. Women require access to justice to ensure the equal benefit and protection of the law – including freedom from discrimination and freedom from violence.
As women experience disproportionate rates of poverty, it follows that women are less able to afford legal fees. While finances are a major barrier to access to justice for most Ontarians, this is all the more pronounced for women: women comprise 62% of Ontarians who earn less than $20,000 per year, the lowest-income group. Obstacles to accessing legal information and representation perpetuate women’s inequality and poverty. The feminization of poverty is often a result of discrimination at work and in the home in a manner prohibited by law, including pay inequity or unfair division of resources after a relationship breakdown. Many of these legal wrongs could be at least partly corrected for women through access to legal representation and advocacy.
Moreover, most Legal Aid Ontario support is allocated to criminal law, while women are more likely to need assistance with civil and family proceedings. Lack of representation in family law disputes has a disproportionately negative impact on women, who experience an average decline in income of about 30% in the year following a divorce. Without sufficient legal aid, many could be without representation for hearings that directly affect their fundamental rights, such as child apprehension hearings. If they are intimidated by ex-partners, they are also more likely to make concessions that are not in their best interests and/or the best interests of their children.
Finally, women are much more likely to enter the criminal justice system as victims rather than perpetrators, and legal aid for victims and witnesses is very limited – which poses significant barriers to women who rely on criminal prosecutions to access justice for sexual assault.
LEAF’s recommendations to the LSO include: focusing on the needs of marginalized groups in consultations; advocating for broader funding for legal aid (covering more family and civil legal services and increasing the income cut-off); enforcing and revisiting rules of professional conduct so discriminatory conduct, including advancing arguments that perpetuate discriminatory myths and stereotypes, would be sanctioned or limited; and, facilitating pro bono work by all members of the bar.
- Read LEAF’s submission here
The Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF) works to advance the substantive equality rights of women and girls through litigation, law reform, and public education. Since 1985, we have intervened in landmark cases that have advanced equality in Canada—helping to prevent violence, eliminate discrimination in the workplace, provide better maternity benefits, ensure a right to pay equity, and allow access to reproductive freedoms. For more information, please visit www.leaf.ca.
For media inquiries, please contact:
Karen Segal, Counsel
Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund
 Statistics Canada, Women in Canada: A Gender-based Statistical Report, “The Economic Well-Being of Women in Canada”, by Dan Fox and Melissa Moyser, Catalogue Number 89-503-x (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 2018), online (pdf): <https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/89-503-x/2015001/article/54930-eng.htm>
 Statistics Canada, Low Income Statistics by Age, Sex and Economic Family Type, Table 11-10-0135-01 (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 2016), online: <https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/t1/tbl1/en/tv.action?pid=1110013501>
 Steven Pressman, « Feminist Explanations for the Feminization of Poverty » (2003) 37: 2 J of Economic Issues at 353-61.