Legal Aid Ontario this week said that available funds are best spent on direct client work. “This was a really difficult exercise, because we recognize that there’s value in systemic work because it creates efficiencies, we recognize there’s value,” said Jayne Mallin, LAO’s vice-president of clinic law services, explaining the decision. “But we also wanted to ensure that if we’ve got to take the money from somewhere, we did not want to take it from clinics providing direct client services in the community.”
Kenn Hale, ACTO’s director of legal services, said the move will interfere with the clinic’s ability to push for systemic changes that provide a direct service to many tenants.
“Legal Aid Ontario is presenting some kind of narrative that the work we do isn’t direct services to clients and not really valuable and can be done on a pro bono or in-your-spare-time approach,” said Kenn Hale, ACTO’s director of legal services.
Toronto remains in the thick of a housing crisis, Hale said, and it the past it was “recognized that it is appropriate to provide funding” to address systemic issues as that would have a broader impact. An example, he said, was when the clinic advocated for better rent controls to Peter Milczyn, former housing minister under the Liberals.
“That is a direct service to low-income tenants,” Hale said, adding that ACTO has been long engaged in the fight to have housing recognized as a human right in Canada, a position that is on the verge of becoming law.
“We spent time in court. We took the government to courts. We did law reform work. We helped in drafting bills,” he said. “We helped communities share their voice.”
The Injured Workers Community Legal Clinic and the Industrial Accident Victims Group, both of which support injured workers filing compensation claims, conduct research on health and safety issues, and provide advocacy for vulnerable employees, said they were each facing a 22-per-cent cut.
The Canadian Environmental Law Association said it will be cut by 17 per cent in the current fiscal year and 35 per cent the next, or $270,933 and $541,865 respectively.
The association represents low-income people and communities dealing with environmental impacts. Problems like water pollution and exposure to toxic chemicals fall disproportionately on vulnerable groups, including children and economically disadvantaged communities, the clinic said.
The clinic also works to create better protections in the law to prevent toxic exposures and pollution from taking place.
They represented the Concerned Citizens of Walkerton during the inquiry into the town’s 2000 tainted water crisis, and also played a role in shaping the province’s safe drinking water legislation in the aftermath.
Such reforms, which help keep cases out of the courts in the first place, are at risk, said executive director Theresa McClenaghan.
“Not only our clinic but all clinics consider that a pretty essential piece of the puzzle, so that’s my biggest concern,” she said.
The Income Security Advocacy Centre (ISAC), a clinic that supports people on social assistance and low-income workers, will see its budget cut by 25 per cent, starting with a 12.5 per cent reduction this year, said legal director Mary Marrone.
“This cut is a direct attack on low-income people in this province, including the social assistance recipients and low-income workers that ISAC serves,” she said in a statement. “The cuts will undermine the ability of low-income Ontarians to challenge unfair laws and policies that violate their rights and that keep them in poverty.”
The centre fought to save the special diet allowance and work-related benefit for people on social assistance, helping those in deep poverty in their struggle to survive, she said.
It also helped the province save thousands of dollars in administrative costs by advocating for a more streamlined medical review process for people with disabilities on social assistance, Marrone added.
“The Ontario government has targeted legal clinics such as ISAC at a time when the government is taking $1 billion out of the pockets of low-income people, including making cuts to the Transition Child Benefit, and as they plan to make disability benefits less accessible,” Marrone said.
“The government has rolled back employment standards and is cutting resources that are needed to enforce workers’ rights. Our work plays a unique and critical role in addressing these issues, to ensure everyone in our community can meet their basic living needs.”
Marrone said the centre, which opened in 2007, is needed more than ever and will fight the cuts.
“We will not be silenced.”
Neighbourhood legal clinic Parkdale Community Legal Services was the heaviest hit by the cuts, losing $1 million.
Thirteen other local clinics in Toronto will lose nearly another $1 million in overall funding.
Parkdale clinic legal worker Cole Webber said local clinics are the last line of defence for people in crisis and Legal Aid Ontario is “obfuscating the situation” by taking the position that advocacy work does not have a direct impact on clients.
Past client Brandon Kennedy, 26, said the Parkdale clinic provided invaluable support during a series of attempted evictions when the ownership of the building where he still lives changed hands several times over three years. Each time, he said, he was told the new owners wanted him to leave.
“I didn’t know any of my legal rights. I didn’t know what I could potentially take to the tribunal to fight this. I didn’t know that the landlord is this case didn’t have a right to do this,” Kennedy said. Failed attempts to remove him, he said, included one owner telling him he had to leave for renovations, a legal process that advocates have dubbed “renoviction.”
Without the clinic he would have been pushed into Toronto’s overheated rental market, he said. “Current market rent is so expensive. I do work full time but lawyers are expensive and between putting up the money to hire a lawyer to potentially fight this versus finding a more expensive place … I just didn’t have access to that resource.”
Lawyer Caryma Sa’d, who represents both tenants and landlords, said the cuts will have a “devastating” impact on already overburdened clinics and will make it harder for both sides in a dispute to get a date to be before a tribunal.
“It is really going to throw the entire system into disarray.” The delays will leave tenants who are not familiar with their rights under the Residential Tenancies Act and unable to access help “floundering” and could “sink” small landlords who can’t afford to carry outstanding rent while they wait for a hearing, she said.
“It doesn’t take that long of nonpayment for rent for somebody to theoretically end up in the hole,” Sa’d said. “Every level of the system right now would benefit from increased funding and more attention paid to the spirit of the RTA and we are moving far and dangerously away from that.”
Geordie Dent with the Federation of Metro Tenants’ Association said a significant concern is the backlog caused by these cuts could also be a prelude to more aggressive legislative reforms.
“This might be again an example of a government creating a crisis through underfunding and then gutting the regulations that protect people as a response.”
With files from Sara Mojtehedzadeh, Kate Allen, Jacques Gallant and Laurie Monsebraaten
Emily Mathieu is a Toronto-based reporter covering affordable and precarious housing. Follow her on Twitter: @emathieustar