Injured workers and other vulnerable communities learned last week of the changes the Ford government is proposing in its overhaul of Ontario’s legal aid system. Promising “modernization” and greater efficiencies, a new Legal Aid Services Act, 2019 was introduced in the Legislative Assembly Monday, Schedule 16 of the government’s omnibus Bill 161, Smarter and Stronger Justice Act, 2019.
Attorney General Doug Downey followed with an announcement the government was reversing plans for deeper legal-aid cuts of an additional $31 million for 2021/22. The existing 30% cut ($133 million) from Legal Aid Ontario’s budget 2019/20 however still stands, despite sustained and widespread calls to restore funding to the legal aid system.
While applauding that wording in the new legislation still recognizes the foundational role of community clinics in providing services in the area of poverty law and their boards in determining local needs, initial analysis of the proposed Act has raised a number of concerns. Among these, Legal Aid Ontario’s new powers in setting regulations and determining funded services in Memoranda of Understanding with each community clinic … While the Bill has yet to go through House debate and Committee hearings, as it stands the proposed Act raises serious questions as to whether the government is stepping back from the commitment to promoting access to justice for low-income individuals and disadvantaged communities that is found in the current legislation.
The government has promised public hearings on the bill in the new year. Ongoing scrutiny and a strong informed response will be essential in ensuring these reforms achieve not just efficiency but remove barriers to justice for Ontario’s most vulnerable people and disadvantaged communities.
- Gallant, Jacques. 2019 Dec. 15. “Critics question changes in Ford government’s proposed legal aid law, like how the term ‘low-income’ is nowhere to be found.” Toronto Star
- Spratt, Michael. 2019 Dec. 13. “‘Smarter and stronger’? New law is really a cruel gutting of access to justice for the impoverished.” CBC News
- Balakrishnan, Anita. 2019 Dec. 11. “Questions remain on funding sustainability in legal clinic system.” Law Times (see also Toronto Star Dec. 10 editorial “Ontario should restore funding to legal aid system.” )
- Jerome, Amanda. 2019 Dec. 10. “Downey stresses modernization in unveiling reforms to legal aid, law society legislation.” (interview) Lawyer’s Daily
- Ontario. Ministry of the Attorney General. 2019 Dec. 9. Backgrounder: Simplifying a Complex and Outdated Justice System to Better Serve People.
- IWO. Legal Aid Cuts Fightback.