British Columbia's government violated the rights of incarcerated mothers when it cancelled a program allowing inmates to serve time with their babies, a B.C. Supreme Court judge has ruled.
The lawsuit was launched in 2008 by two former inmates of the Alouette Correctional Centre for Women in Maple Ridge, B.C., after a prison official cancelled the program because infants were not within the mandate of the correctional service.
Justice Carol Ross ruled Monday the decision violated the mothers' equality rights and security of person and liberty, contrary to the principles of fundamental justice under the Charter of Rights.
"The decision to cancel the Mother Baby Program removed one important option, the one presumed at law to be favourable, from the process of determining the best interests of the child," said Justice Ross.
"As a result, infants have been and will be separated from their mothers during the critical formative period of their life, interfering with their attachment to their mother, and depriving them of the physical and psychological benefits of breastfeeding."
Mothers, too, will continue to suffer from being separated from their infants, Justice Ross added, concluding the decision to cancel the program was "arbitrary, over-broad and grossly disproportionate."
She said it was also contrary to the principles of fundamental justice. "Provincially sentenced mothers and their babies are members of a vulnerable and disadvantaged group," she said.
"In that regard, the circumstances of aboriginal mothers and their infants are of particular concern given the history of over-representation of aboriginal women in the incarcerated population and the history of dislocation of aboriginal families caused by state action."
Geoff Cowper, legal counsel for some of the plaintiffs, said he is pleased with the ruling, adding the women showed considerable courage and determination.
"There's a compelling record, I think, record to revisit the whole issue, and I'm hopeful that the province will agree to reinstate the program because it stands well on its own merits, whether or not the Constitution requires them to do that," he said.
The judge gave the government six months to correct the present situation and comply with her ruling.
Kasari Govender, executive director of the West Coast Women's Legal Education and Action Fund, an intervenor in the case, said the ruling creates a legal implication for the government.
"The government has to reinstate a similar program," she said. "What exactly that program will look like is not specified in the decision."
Grace Pastine, spokeswoman for the BC Civil Liberties Association, agreed that the status quo isn't acceptable.
"The government will no longer have the option of refusing to administer a successful program that had fundamental, proven benefits for mothers and babies," she said. "This program was highly respected. It respected the family unit and the bond between mothers and their babies."
Marnie Mayhew, a spokeswoman for BC Corrections, said the agency will review the decision carefully and decide how to move forward.
"If government decides to not pursue an appeal, BC Corrections has six months to fulfill the direction from the court," she said in an e-mail.
"Regardless of the outcome, I can assure you we are committed to ensuring supports for all women – including pregnant women – continues to be in place at Alouette Correctional Centre for Women."