Just call Doug!

As Legal Aid Ontario starts slashing its spending in response to the 30% cut imposed on it by the provincial government, the Premier wants to assure Ontarians that no one will be denied legal aid coverage:

“If anyone needs support on legal aid, feel free to call my office. I will guarantee you that you will have legal aid.”

You will excuse me if I don’t believe this promise, made by the man whose sole goal seems to be ensuring that we can all buy beer anywhere, anytime.

Clients at the centre?

In 1988, the Legal Aid Services Act established Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) with a mandate to:

“provide access to justice throughout Ontario for low-income individuals by means of providing consistently high quality legal aid services in a cost-effective and efficient manner.”

Never able to meet the demand for its services, LAO has now announced cuts that will have a severe impact on access to justice for anyone who can’t afford to buy it for themselves.

In his June 12th email to LAO staff, CEO David Field insists that “clients are at the centre of all we do,” but many who serve those clients disagree.

Dana Fisher, speaking for the union that represents legal aid lawyers, said the cuts will have a “devastating impact” on clients.

Johanna Macdonald, with Parkdale Community Legal Services in Toronto, Canada’s oldest and largest community legal clinic, anticipates that she will lose half her staff as a result of the cut in her clinic’s funding; a loss that will surely have a significant impact on clients.

Self-interest or concern for justice?

Jesse Robichaud, a spokesperson for Attorney General Caroline Mulroney, had the audacity to imply that legitimate criticism of the announced cuts is simply self-interest on the part of lawyers:

“There is no doubt that some lawyers and other special-interest groups will resist renewed accountability with public dollars, but it is necessary to better serve Legal Aid Ontario’s clients and the taxpayers who pay the bill.”

What an insult to the thousands of lawyers in this province who work long hours for low wages – and sometimes for no wages at all – on behalf of Ontario’s most vulnerable and marginalized.

In fact, this round of spending cuts will increase the vulnerability of many who become involved with Ontario’s legal systems and lead to over-crowded dockets and court delays.

While the AG’s office describes LAO’s changed funding (ie cuts in funding) to legal clinics as a move to “ensure resources are targeted to direct, front line services for real people,” lawyer Fathima Cader sees it differently:

“[this cut] indicates a really vindictive intent on behalf of either the government or Legal Aid Ontario . . . . Community work is direct client work.”

Cuts, cuts and more cuts

Here are just a few examples of the cuts being implemented.

LAO will no longer provide funding for an accused person to be represented by their own lawyer at their bail hearing, claiming that duty counsel already present in the courtroom can handle this work. Critics point out that this will create a crisis in bail court because duty counsel are already overburdened and won’t be able to take on this additional work in a meaningful way.

Fisher, herself a duty counsel lawyer, says:

“T[his] could leave people facing charges unjustly locked up for an unreasonable amount of time as they await their turn for bail.”

Lawyers who represent clients with mental health issues as well as those representing Indigenous clients will see a significant cut in how much compensation they receive for their work.

On the family law side, for the moment, no changes are being made to specific services for clients who have been subjected to domestic violence. However, some of the cuts will have an impact on those clients, including the end to independent legal advice certificates for mediation and negotiation of separation agreements.

Further, not all survivors of family violence disclose that they have been abused at the early stages of their case, which means they may fall victim to the more general family law cuts that LAO is implementing. And, LAO staff – whether intake workers at LAO’s call centre or duty counsel at family courthouses – who are overextended because of the cuts may not take the time needed with survivors to ensure they feel safe enough to talk about the abuse they have been subjected to.

There is more to come

Working closely with the Ministry of the Attorney General, LAO has embarked on a review of its services.

The mandate of this review is, in part, to “develop and implement reform proposals and legislative amendments that will contribute to moving the legal aid system towards sustainability . . . “

On the table are such ideas as increased use of technology, more use of unbundled legal services, an increased role for paralegals, more centralization and something called “agile service delivery.”

Technology can be an important part of effective delivery of legal services, especially for people in remote parts of the province who would otherwise have to travel long distances to get to in-person services. Being able to hire a lawyer for specific parts of a legal matter rather than for everything (unbundled services) can work in many situations. Paralegals can and should be given an expanded role to play in criminal, family and likely other areas of law.

But in the present political climate, I have doubts that any of these ideas will lead to truly better supports for those who need them the most.

Join Parkdale Community Legal Services as it fights back against these cuts and stay tuned for the slashing  — I mean, putting clients at the centre — that lies ahead.

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