Misguided cuts to Legal Aid Ontario’s funding | Shiva Bakhtiary
Monday, June 24, 2019 @ 2:27 PM | By Shiva Bakhtiary
The province expects to save $164 million by encouraging the organization to “modernize” and make its services more sustainable. They insist that if LAO reforms by considering ways to streamline the delivery of its services and offers more services online, it can actually serve more people even with the reduced funding.
It is difficult for me to see how cutting a third of the organization’s budget can be remedied through “streamlining,” especially considering the fact that the need for legal aid services has always outstripped the resources available to meet it. Yet it seems the province is asking that the organization do more with less.
The province sets the income threshold which determines a person’s eligibility for legal aid. It increased that figure in April by six per cent to make eligible a single individual earning less than $17,731 per year. This means that more people will qualify for legal aid while the province reduces its funding. Again, the province is asking that the organization do more with less.
It is clear that the cuts are misguided. In a letter to LAO CEO David Field, the former attorney general of Ontario, Caroline Mulroney, claims that “despite an extra $86 million in funding since 2013, the number of clients served each year by LAO has decreased by more than 10,000.”
Premier Doug Ford echoed that statement but neither has provided a source for their claims.
In the contrary, there was a 23 per cent increase in the number of certificates issued by LAO between 2013 and 2018. Last year alone, LAO issued 102,873 certificates for people to receive representation.
With the drastic cuts in funding, however, the organization will have to cut $38 million from the $251 million it allocates to compensating private lawyers. It also plans to boost internal savings through administrative efficiencies, attrition, voluntary exits, vacancy management and the “Legal Aid Modernization Project.”
Although the organization can benefit from the modernization of the system, it does not help if people cannot access the services.
Ford argues that more money is being spent on lawyer fees than on actual cases. This is an unfounded statement considering legal aid lawyers are already accepting a pay cut by market standards. The hourly rate of legal aid lawyers is usually a third of what they could charge privately.
Despite the drastic cut in funding, Ford guarantees that anyone who needs legal aid will receive it. He told Global News on April 22, “If anyone needs support on legal aid, feel free to call my office. I will guarantee you that you will have legal aid.”
To guarantee legal aid for anyone who needs it is a far-fetched statement in the face of drastic cuts in funding by the province, which compromises the largest component of LAO’s budget.
LAO services cover family law, criminal law, immigration and refugee matters — all of which involve vulnerable individuals where Charter rights are often engaged. It also runs community clinics that serve Indigenous people and help low-income individuals and those with chronic disabilities get social assistance.
The cut in funding can have a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable and marginalized individuals, most of whom benefit from LAO’s services. These include families in poverty, women fleeing domestic violence, children, individuals charged with a crime, individuals with mental health issues, people on social assistance, tenants, injured workers, refugees and migrants.
From the immigration perspective, these are often individuals fleeing war or facing extradition, torture or persecution.
An immediate cut can also cause ripples throughout our justice system including backlogs, court delays and disruption in the administration of justice. Self-represented individuals need counsel to assist them in navigating the court system efficiently. When individuals are unrepresented, the already overburdened and under-resourced court system becomes less efficient.
Of course there are organizations that help provide legal information to those who are not familiar with legal proceedings. But, they are not a substitute for representation. And there are not many lawyers in private practice who do pro bono work. In fact, many experienced lawyers refuse to take on legal aid files because it is not economically viable, resulting in a two-tiered system where people who can afford to retain their own lawyer get superior service compared to those who cannot.
Lastly, consider the impact that a cut of this nature can have on the values that Canadians pride ourselves on — fair access to justice, democracy and the rule of law; not to mention recognition of the value of services provided by lawyers.
Access to justice is one of Canada’s fundamental rights. Without it, the rule of law is diminished if not rendered meaningless. And democracy is diminished when the majority government endangers rights of vulnerable minorities.
Many organizations, such as the Income Security Advocacy Centre, are urging Ontario residents to call on the new Attorney General, Doug Downey, to rescind the cuts to legal aid or even take Ford up on his offer to call his office for help.
This is part one of a two-part series. Part two--Ontario cuts to legal aid for refugees: Possibly unconstitutional
Shiva Bakhtiary is a lawyer at Augustine Bater Binks LLP, a litigation firm in Ottawa.
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