The decision of Doug the Grinch Ford’s government to slash $133 million from Legal Aid Ontario’s (LAO) budget earlier this year had immediate and far-reaching consequences for thousands of low-income Ontarians needing legal services and those providing those services.
A further $33 million cut projected for later in the year had many of us worrying about what services would be cut next. It was not hard to imagine the worst, given the indications that direct cuts to client services were not just likely but almost certain.
Instead, Doug the Grinch Downey introduced Bill 161, The Smarter and Stronger Justice Act, while also announcing that the anticipated cuts had been cancelled.
Perhaps Downey intended the announcement that there would be no further cuts – which does nothing to restore what was lost as a result of the cuts earlier this year – to distract our attention from Bill 161, which proposes amendments to more than 20 pieces of provincial legislation.
Best we be distracted, because the Bill offers anything but the good cheer and kindness we are all supposed to be enjoying at this time of year.
More than semantics
LAO is currently governed by the Legal Aid Services Act 1998, which sets out the agency’s mandate as follows:
Bill 161 would change this mandate to:
“The purpose of this Act is to facilitate the establishment of a flexible and sustainable legal aid system that provides effective and high quality legal aid services throughout Ontario in a client-focused and accountable manner while ensuring value for money.”
While judges, law societies, academics and others continue to tout the need to increase people’s access to justice, Ontario’s government wants to ensure value for money.
But that’s not all. Ontario’s commitment to smarter and stronger justice will also swap out one very small but important word for another in the Legal Aid Services Act.
Section 13.1 of the current legislation states that:
“The Corporation shall provide legal aid services in the areas of criminal law, family law, clinic law and mental health law.” (emphasis added)
Bill 161 will change this word in section 4 of the revised Act:
“The Corporation may, subject to the regulations, provide legal services in the following areas of law” (emphasis added)
Not only will there be no legislated mandate to promote access to justice, there is no requirement that LAO provide legal aid services at all; simply permission for them to do so.
“The amendments proposed today . . . entrust significant responsibility to Legal Aid Ontario, whose ability to carry those out effectively will depend upon a willingness to continue working with our members who deliver services on the front lines and upon adequate funding.”
“This change in law might sound like semantics, but for thousands of poor Ontarians turning ‘shall’ into ‘may’ is the difference between being guaranteed a lawyer and losing their right to legal representation.”
The Society of United Professionals, which represents Ontario’s LAO lawyers, was even more blunt and called the Bill the “biggest attack on legal aid in Ontario’s history.”
To Premier and Attorney General Grinch, I say:
“You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch
You really are a heel . . .
You’re a monster, Mr. Grinch
Your heart’s an empty hole . . .
You’re a vile one, Mr. Grinch
You have termites in your smile.”