Fixing Legal Aid Ontario’s deficit: on whose backs?

lawyer by Wesley Fryer
Lawyer by Wesley Fryer / CC BY 2.0

As the Toronto Star recently reported, the external review of Legal Aid Ontario’s (LAO) deficit has now been completed.

Many of you will remember that Ontario Attorney General Yasir Naqvi called for this review after LAO announced in December that it had accumulated a deficit of $26 million in a very short period of time.

Among other findings, Deloitte Canada – the company that conducted the review – has concluded that the cutbacks implemented to this date by LAO have not been sufficient and that “[d]ifficult choices may need to be made. . . .” for the organization to return to a balanced budget.

LAO CEO David Field told the Toronto Star: “It’s [a return to a balanced budget] not a concern at this point . . . we’re happy with the progress we’re making already.” These are not particularly reassuring words, given that Field was leading LAO during the time the massive deficit was accumulating.

So far, LAO seems to be focusing on cutting back the number of legal aid certificates it issues to help eliminate its deficit.

This is very disturbing to those of us who support the vulnerable and marginalized low-income Ontarians who, when they experience a legal crisis, rely on assistance from Legal Aid Ontario.

In the area of family law, for instance, approximately 50 – 70% of litigants are unrepresented, mostly because they have too much money to qualify for a legal aid certificate but not enough to pay for a lawyer themselves. As a result, courts are backlogged with cases that move slowly because people without lawyers have to figure out the law and court process on their own.

Those of us who work with women fleeing abusive relationships know only too well the toll this takes. We see women who do not have a lawyer go into court with poorly prepared documents and ill prepared to argue the merits of their case, accept poor outcomes that leave them exposed to ongoing abuse and harassment by their former partner and even return to their relationship because they cannot withstand the legal bullying of their unrepresented former partner.

We are very concerned that some pilot programs instituted by LAO in recent years intended to support survivors of family violence may see the chopping block as the organization struggles to return itself to a balanced budget. Already, women who a year ago were able to obtain a criminal law certificate from LAO are being told this service is no longer available to them.

Women who are dealing with refugee claims (and possibly intersecting family and/or criminal issues) are especially vulnerable. According to the Deloitte report, there is a “high risk that LAO will incur a much larger deficit in refugee than originally anticipated.”

While LAO is pushing for an additional $13 million in federal funding for refugee cases, it was allocated less than $2 million in the recent budget.

The report concludes by saying that LAO’s plan to balance the budget is “feasible, but not without risks and implementation challenges.”

It seems that the risks are all falling to those who are already the most vulnerable and who had nothing to do with the incurring of the deficit that has brought LAO to this moment.

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