Ontario’s Cuts to Legal Aid
Ontario first implemented an organized legal aid plan in 1951, with Legal Aid Ontario (“LAO”) becoming an independent agency in 1998 with the introduction of the Legal Aid Services Act, 1998.
Since this time, LAO’s services have grown to include:
- Duty Counsel – lawyers who can quickly assess a client’s legal problems in court (or in some instances at tribunals) who would otherwise go unassisted or unrepresented;
- Over the Phone Services – Toll free services where clients can access information, referrals, legal aid applications, and advice from a lawyer;
- Certificates – those who are financially eligible can apply for certificates for representation by a private lawyer; and
- Community Clinics – LAO funded clinics assist low-income communities meet their most basic needs and provides a point of access to justice.
LAO’s Annual Report for the 2017-2018 fiscal year indicates that:
- 102,873 certificates were issued to fund private representation for individuals and families across Ontario. This broke into 56,777 certificates for criminal law, 27,049 certificates for family law, 13,687 for immigration and refugee law and 5,360 for civil law matters;
- LAO’s client service centre fielded over 450,000 calls; and
- Duty counsel in criminal court alone provided services to 504,636 clients.
In addition to the above, LAO is the primary funder of 74 community legal aid clinics across Ontario, which provide a wide range of legal services, including: housing and landlord and tenant matters, issues with entitlement to income supports and social benefits, criminal injuries compensation, criminal law, immigration and refugee law, family law as well as employment law.
During law school, I had the opportunity and privilege to work at the Community and Legal Aid Services Program (“CLASP”) located at York University. Like many of my colleagues, who also spent time either working or volunteering with community based clinics, I saw the direct impact CLASP has had on its surrounding community, providing essential legal and social work services to marginalized and low-income Toronto community members.
There is an obvious and growing need for access to affordable legal services for individuals and families across Ontario. Despite this need, the Ontario government has announced cuts to LAO’s funding in the 2019 Provincial Budget:
- A decrease of 30% of LAO’s funding in 2019, amounting to a total cut of $133 million;
- Raising the decrease to 40% by 2021;
- Ending all provincial funding for refugee and immigration law services; and
- Removing mandatory ancillary fees from university tuition.
A number of community legal clinics are associated with Ontario universities. While the bulk of their funding comes from LAO, an important source of funding comes from mandatory ancillary tuition fees. With the government’s announcement that these fees will no longer be mandatory, providing students with the option to “opt-out”, community clinics are facing an additional hit to their funding structures.
International research has shown that investing in community legal clinics reduces overall costs to the legal system and to government programs generally, by decreasing the number of self-represented litigants, helping to keep people housed, and empowering people to live independently and to participate in their communities.
Ontario is comprised of a vast number of diverse and vibrant communities – all of whom deserve to have access to legal services and representation when they need it. As stated by the Honourable R. Roy McMurtry during his tenure as Ontario’s Attorney General: “Legal Aid, and in particular community law, is perhaps the single most important mechanism we have to make the equal rights dream a reality.”
What You Can Do:
If you are as angered by the Ontario government’s proposed cuts as I am, please see just a few examples of actions you can take below:
(1) Emails, Letters and Phone calls
You can write a personalized letter or email to your local MPP. You can also send a personalized letter or email directly to Premier Doug Ford and the Ontario Attorney General, the Honourable Caroline Mulroney. Depending on your level of comfort, you can also call them.
If you do not have time to write a personalized letter, there are many template letters or forms that are being circulated by community clinics. You can also go here for a template form and more information generally.
(3) Town Halls and Rallies
Community members have been active in their organizing. For example, there is an upcoming joint Town Hall on the recent cuts to legal aid (and its impact), hosted by CSALC (the Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic), CCSP (the Centre for Spanish Speaking Peoples), and SALCO (the South Asian Legal Clinic for Ontario).
The Town Hall will be May 29, 2019 at 6:00pm at the Ryerson Centre for Urban Innovation; 44 Gerrard St. East, 2nd Floor Room 219. For more information you can go here.
While our communities work together to urge the Ontario government to reconsider, and reverse the devastating cuts to legal aid, those who are able to, can donate directly to a community clinic of their choosing. For example, to donate to CLASP you can go here, or, to donate to the Advocacy Centre for the Elderly, you can go here.
Stay tuned for more on this issue which will be discussed by my colleague Nick Esterbauer. Thanks for reading!