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Katherine Long sm

LEAF to host panel on what lawyers can do to help legal aid

Tuesday, January 21, 2020 @ 9:16 AM | By Amanda Jerome

Amidst cuts to Ontario’s legal aid funding, the legal profession has rallied around the cause, stressing the importance of access to justice and the need for action. The Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund’s (LEAF) Toronto branch is taking the discussion to the next level by hosting a panel on Jan. 23 to address the cuts head on.

Cuts to Legal Aid: How can the legal profession help?” will be held at the University of Toronto Jackman Law Building at 6:30 p.m. and will feature panellists Angela Chaisson, speaking about criminal law; Erin Simpson, on immigration and refugee law; Tammy Law, on child protection;  Katharina Janczaruk, addressing family law; and Anita Szigeti, on mental health law.

Katherine Long, member of LEAF’s executive committee

“Legal aid has been recognized by [former] chief justice [Beverley] McLachlin, and others, as really vital to the functioning of our justice system,” said Katherine Long, a member of LEAF’s executive committee.

Long told The Lawyer’s Daily that panel discussions on legal aid are “important for members of the profession who don’t take legal aid [certificates] to understand exactly what is happening with this legal aid system” and how it’s functioning.

“We’re all officers of the court,” she added. “All of us have an obligation to serve the interests of justice and this is a vital part of that. I think this is a very important conversation to have, not only just for people who take legal aid [certificates], but for people who don’t, and for all of us to have a conversation together about what are the issues and what can we, as a profession, do about it.”

Long noted that the panel will be speaking about specific areas of law that have been impacted by the legal aid cuts.

“We’re so lucky to have an amazing panel with individuals who are engaged in a lot of advocacy work and institutional changes. The hope is that people will be able to take away some concrete steps in terms of ‘what can I do’ in a way that lines up with where people are at. I think it can often feel very hopeless when you’re facing these larger policy changes and people can often feel like there’s nothing they can do aside from potentially upping their pro bono hours and that simply is not the case. There are actions that people can take, and we want people to feel empowered, and informed, and inspired coming away from this,” she explained.

Danielle Ralph, member of LEAF

Danielle Ralph, also a member of LEAF, said, as someone who doesn’t take legal aid certificates, she was concerned to see the effect the legal aid cuts were having and wanted to know how she could help without hindering efforts that had already been made.

“For example,” she said, “something I hadn’t given much thought to before was that if we do increase our pro bono is that taking pressure off the government to reverse some of their decisions about legal aid cuts … because the burden won’t be felt as strongly? Are we trying to make sure the legal aid program, and its integrity, is upheld as it was? Or is there a shift that needs to happen?”

She explained that the panel will help facilitate the discussion around this issue so that professionals who aren’t involved in the legal aid program “have a better idea of how to help that’s more informed then just providing pro bono.”

Tina Yang, LEAF’s vice-chair

Tina Yang, LEAF’s vice-chair, in agreement with Ralph, said her “understanding is spotty” in terms of what concrete actions she can take to help the situation.

“A lot of us don’t regularly interact with legal aid,” she said “[and] don’t quite understand where our resources, in terms of our time and dollars, can be best directed. That’s something that I hope people come away with, a little more information, or at least a little more perspective than they came in with.”

Ralph said LEAF was inspired to host the panel by its mandate to help marginalized peoples. Yang also noted that the Toronto branch has “the responsibility to advocate and educate about legal issues that disproportionately affect marginalized groups, particularly women and girls.”

“LEAF Toronto has a commitment to diverse panels,” added Yang. “Obviously, we focus on having female identified speakers, and having diversity and other identities within that. We’re very excited about this panel, which obviously does reflect that priority of the chapter.”

Ralph noted that panellists Chaisson and Simpson are “women who have blazed their own path.” She said it’s important to hear from panellists who recognized a niche area where services were lacking, even before the legal aid cuts took place. Ralph believes Chaisson and Simpson will bring a “broader perspective” to the situation.

Long echoed Ralph’s comments and said LEAF is “very lucky” to have the speakers contributing to the panel discussion. She noted that Law is the president of the Ontario Association of Child Protection Lawyers and has done important advocacy work in this area. Janczaruk, Long added, is the former president of the Family Lawyers Association and is very active in the profession, while Szigeti is the founder of the Law and Mental Health Disorder Association and is “one of the leading voices in terms of mental health law and practice.”

Yang noted that LEAF’s Toronto branch ceased activity a number of years ago but has since been revitalized through work done by the branch’s chair and the national executive committee.

“This panel, to me, represents the essence of what we’re trying to do,” she added. “It’s a very timely topic. It connects directly to our lives, our livelihood, our profession generally, and it engages with the question, ‘what do we, as lawyers, owe to the administration of justice and to marginalized communities and their access to the justice system?’ ”

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