Bill 161 has completed second reading and was supposed to go to public hearings before the Legislature’s Standing Committee on Justice Policy the week of March 23rd. However, due to COVID-19 all Standing Committees now remain adjourned “until the Government House Leader indicates to the Speaker that is in the public interest for Standing Committees to meet”.
Although therefore currently on hold, the sweeping reforms to Ontario’s legal aid system in omnibus justice Bill 161 and its potential impact on the province’s most disadvantaged have continued to draw heavy scrutiny.
In a stinging critique a report Neither Smarter nor Stronger: Bill 161 is a Step Backwards for Access to Justice and Community-Based Legal Services in Ontario was released last week, endorsed by more than 30 law professors from across the province. Addressing Schedule 16, the proposed replacement of the 1998 Legal Aid Services Act (LASA), the report concludes that the new Act will “widen the gaps in access to justice, leaving more and more low-income Ontarians without any realistic means of having their rights enforced, their legal needs addressed, or their interests conveyed to and reflected by either legislatures or courts …In particular LASA 2019 will:
- 1. Significantly limit the scope of “clinic law” services in Ontario and thus fundamentally change the statutory mandate of community legal clinics;
- 2. Dramatically alter community legal clinics’ ability to engage in systemic law reform and community organizing aimed at the roots of low-income people’s everyday legal issues;
- 3. Weaken the ability of community legal clinics to adequately determine and respond to the needs of low-income and disadvantaged communities; and
- 4. Diminish opportunities to educate future lawyers in community-based advocacy.
[Read full report ]
Redefining poverty law and community legal clinic role?
Many of the issues were highlighted also by the Association of Legal Clinics of Ontario (ACLCO) in its analysis of Bill 161 (Feb. 4, 2020), including concerns on Schedule 15 (renegotiation of funding agreements). Among other changes recommended by the ACLCO to Schedule 16, LASA 2019: restoring ‘access to justice’ and recognition of community legal clinics as the’ foundation of clinic law or poverty law’ in the purpose clause ; amending the narrower definitions of ‘poverty law’ and ‘community legal clinic’; reinstating the role of clinics and independent community-based boards in determining local needs and how services are provided; amending sections on review of Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) decisions, adequate time for meaningful consultation on LAO rules, client eligibility, appointment of LAO Board of Directors; strengthening confidentiality provisions … [Read full analysis]
Bright Lights, an injured workers’ group which has been meeting since 1994 for peer support and to take action on issues critical to injured workers, also recently contacted the Attorney General with its concerns over the new Bill. In their letter they express concerns that under the new legislation community legal clinics may be closed if no funding agreement with LAO is reached within 6 months, putting pressure on clinics to accept LAO’s terms. As other voices have also asked, Bright Lights questions why the Bill’s wording removes providing the phrase “access to justice for low-income individuals” from the Act and changes “shall provide legal aid” to “may provide”? [Read full letter]
- Gallant, Jacques. 2020 Mar. 10. “Ford Government’s Legal Aid Plan Will Have Profoundly Negative Effect on Low-Income Ontarians, Law Professors Say.” Toronto Star
- Hughes, Patricia. 2020 Feb. 11. “Searching for Smarter, Stronger – and Better? Justice.” Slaw
- Sharma, Radhika. 2020 Jan. 21. “How Ontario’s New Legal Aid Bill Will Impact Parkdale.” Obiter