The size and scope of cuts to legal aid funding announced in last week’s provincial Budget were a blow to equitable access to justice for Ontario’s most vulnerable populations. Cuts of almost 30% (a reduced allocation to Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) of $133 million in the year ahead, growing to $164 million by 2021-22) will affect frontline delivery of legal assistance. Those impacted are low-income Ontarians seeking help with critical and essential issues affecting all areas of their life: from family and criminal law matters, employment exploitation, mental health or disability discrimination, domestic and workplace safety or unlawful eviction to accessing income support and other government services to which they are entitled. As the immediate and strong response has noted, the cuts will disproportionately affect people of colour and indigenous peoples, over-represented among the poor in the province.
For injured workers, too many of whom experience poverty along with physical and psychological harm from work-related accidents and illnesses, this legal help is essential – be it advice on filing claims, education on the workers’ compensation process, or legal representation at appeals hearings.
Community legal clinics – front-line service
Ontario’s 72 community legal clinics are a key part of the legal aid system, in 2017 providing help to over 240,000 clients. Non-profit institutions governed by volunteer boards of citizens, these clinics effectively identify and prioritize issues facing vulnerable local client groups. Most are small, store-front offices, where all staff are directly engaged in front-line service with clients, collaborating with local agencies to share and maximize scarce resources. With no bureaucracy or administrative fat to trim, the clinics – financially accountable to Legal Aid Ontario – deliver cost-effective, client-focused legal service. In the words of Northwest Community Legal Clinic executive director Trudy McCormick “We basically do the roof over your head, food on your table stuff … We are where people go when they have nowhere else to go.” [download a Fact sheet on Ontario’s community legal clinics | Cliniques juridiques communautaires de l’Ontario]
There remains a big gap between the funding received by legal aid and the actual need in the low-income population. Although the Attorney-General’s letter of April 12, 2019 to LAO CEO David Field said the funding cut is in part because of a drop in the number of clients served, LAO has now stated there was an error in the 2017-18 numbers used by the Attorney General to justify the funding cuts. LAO statistics show that from 2013/14 to the present all legal aid services have significantly increased and the demand is growing. (See TVO’s Agenda (Dec. 12, 2018) for a panel discussion on factors contributing to this growth).
The benefits of investing in a legal aid system
International research shows that proper funding of legal aid is money well spent: studies in the United States identify a return to government of approximately $5 for every dollar invested. It reduces costs to the legal system and government programs by keeping people able to live independently and participate in their communities. As many advocates have noted, limiting access to legal representation is counter-productive and undermines constitutional rights. Most people cannot navigate their cases alone so forcing them to represent themselves can only “clog” the courts and administrative tribunals, leading to further bottle-necks and backlogs throughout the justice system.
The risks of limiting access to justice
The personal cost to low-income Ontarians from limiting the ability to defend their rights and from denial of justice through lack of proper representation is high. For refugee claimants without representation the consequences it can be life-threatening.
Although recent consultation with the federal government over cost-sharing (as recommended also by the Auditor General in her 2018 Annual Report ) the government, as feared, made good on its promise to defund LAO’s immigration and refugee program by prohibiting the use of provincial funds. As of Tuesday LAO is providing core refugee services with federal funding, including assistance with asylum claim forms, and preparing to hold public consultations on interim measures and ways to serve as many clients as possible.
We join with Sally Colquhoun, co-ordinator of legal services at the Kinna-aweya Legal Clinic, in hoping that the Attorney General and the Government will reverse the funding cuts and make a commitment to justice.
A reminder: Next week is constituency week for Ontario MPPs. This is a good opportunity to drop in or call to talk to your local MPP [find addresses and contact info at https://www.ola.org/en/members ] about the importance of legal aid services in your area.
- Pindera, Erik. 2019 Apr. 17. “Legal Aid Cuts Could Impact Front-line Services: Northwest Community Legal Clinic.” Kenora Miner & News
- Syed, Fatima. 2019 Apr. 16 “Legal Aid Ontario Stops Taking New Refugee Cases After Ontario Budget Cuts.” National Observer
- Colour of Poverty-Colour of Change. 2019 Apr. 15. Press Release: 30% Cuts to Legal Aid Are an Attack on Racialized Communities, Immigrants and Refugees
- Abedi, Maham. 2019 Apr. 13. “Lawyers Slam Ontario’s ‘Discriminatory’ Legal Aid Cuts for Refugee Claimants.” Global News
- Birdsell, Mary. 2019 Apr. 12. “Legal Aid in Ontario Fares Badly in the Budget.” CBC Metro Morning [podcast] – interview with Executive director of Justice for Children & Youth
- Laucius, Joanne. 2019 Apr. 12. “Budget Cuts to Legal Aid Budget Will Affect Ontario’s Most Vulnerable, Lawyers Say.” Ottawa Citizen
- Balakrishnan, Anita. 2019 Apr. 12. “Province Cuts Funding to Legal Aid Ontario.” Canadian Lawyer
- Gray, Jeff. 2019 Apr. 12. “Lawyers Condemn Doug Ford Government Cuts to Legal-Aid Funding.” Globe and Mail
- Law Society of Ontario. 2019 Apr. 11. Law Society Expresses Grave Concern Over Deep Cuts to Legal Aid Ontario.
- Zemans, Frederick & Justin Amaranth. 2018. “A Current Assessment of Legal Aid in Ontario.” Journal of Law and Social Policy 29: 1-28.
- TVO. 2018 Dec. 12. The Agenda: Improving Legal Aid and Access to Justice.
- Ontario. Office of the Auditor General. 2018. Annual Report. Section 3.05 Toronto: The Office
- Canadian Bar Association. 2016. Study on Access to the Justice System – Legal Aid . Ottawa: CBA