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BC to review tenancy laws that may trap women in bad relationships

The province is reviewing a call from women's groups to change B.C.'s tenancy laws amid suggestions they inadvertently stop women from fleeing domestic violence.

On Wednesday, legal advocates with West Coast LEAF warned that women dealing with abuse face financial penalties under the Residential Tenancy Act if they break their fixed-term lease. Backed by Atira Women's Resource Society, the groups are proposing an exception in abuse cases.

"It's a small change," West Coast LEAF's legal director Laura Track said. "Given the incredible barriers that already exist for women fleeing domestic violence... we think having an additional barrier created by tenancy legislation is unconscionable."

Under current laws, tenants who break fixed-term housing leases must pay their landlord the balance of remaining rent in their contract and may be forced to pay for advertising to find a tenant to replace them. For low-income women in particular, these "significant financial penalties" act as a deterrent to escaping abuse.

A spokeswoman for BC Housing said that the department recently allotted $5.5 million for a plan to prevent domestic violence, but is willing to examine its policies if there are problems.

"Since this issue has been brought to the province's attention, we will review the recommendation," the spokeswoman said in an email. "We are always willing to look at recommendations to support victims of domestic abuse."

In a related case, Track pointed to a 2012 Residential Tenancy Branch (RTB) decision to uphold the eviction of a woman who faced noise complaints because of her abusive spouse, even though a court had granted her a restraining order against him. That case, and lease-breaking penalties, are evidence of "larger issues at the RTB" when it comes to decision-making, Track said.

Asked if a potentially costly review process would be needed if such a change were made, Track said BC Housing already has a system to evaluate domestic violence with women seeking subsidized housing, which could easily be used in lease-breaking situations.

That existing process involves a third-party verifier -- for instance a lawyer, victim assistance counsellor or transition house staff-person -- confirming that the person needs to flee an abusive situation.

Similar reforms have already taken place in Quebec, Manitoba and Nova Scotia, Track said, but advocates in those provinces told her an equally important part of the change was letting tenants know their new rights, so that women wouldn't be afraid to leave.

"We hope the government will move quickly to make this legislative amendment, but also to make sure there is education and outreach so tenants are aware of their rights," Track said.

According to Statistics Canada's most recent data from 2010, B.C.'s domestic violence rates are higher than the rest of Canada's -- that year alone, police received more than 16,000 reports of intimate partner violence, and the department's 2012 Family Violence in Canada report suggested that only roughly one-in-five cases of such violence are reported.

David P. Ball is staff reporter with The Tyee based in Vancouver. Find him on Twitter @davidpball.

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