Ontario’s attorney general says he wants the legal aid system to be more efficient and accessible, maintaining that the recent budget cuts are not about cutting front-line services.
“I want to find solutions to make sure that people at the front lines, the people that need to access the system, are getting it in the most efficient and easy way possible,” Doug Downey told the Star this week in an interview at his downtown Toronto office.
“The system was on track to being unsustainable. And we’ve moved very quickly — and no doubt we moved quickly — but we’re doing it so we can make the system sustainable and actually service people on the front lines.”
While Downey says he wants to see front-line services improve and modernize, lawyers, judges and legal clinics say the Ford government’s cuts have had a devastating impact on those services and the situation is only worsening, as people are left to navigate the complex court system on their own.
The provincial government imposed a $133 million cut this spring to the budget of Legal Aid Ontario — a 30 per cent reduction of the previously anticipated $456 million provincial allocation. The province said it also intends to cut $31 million next year.
The independent agency is responsible for paying private lawyers to represent individuals in court who qualify for assistance (such as in criminal or family law cases) and also employs lawyers known as duty counsel who work in courthouses and can assist unrepresented people.
Legal Aid Ontario also funds the province’s 73 community legal clinics. Some clinics provide general legal services to low-income people on matters such as housing and income security in specific “catchment areas,” while others have provincial mandates in certain issues, including HIV/AIDS, children and youth, and seniors.
“You don’t improve front line services by cutting 30 per cent of the budget,” said Dana Fisher, vice-president of the Society of United Professionals’ Legal Aid Ontario local, which represents the agency’s staff lawyers.
“The Ford government’s legal aid cuts are a false economy because they add costs elsewhere in the justice system. More people are showing up to court without a lawyer, which is likely to lead to wrongful convictions and is already creating expensive logjams in our courtrooms. Due to new delays, courts are sitting later and later, which adds costs the justice system for overtime and staffing.”
The cuts were imposed during the tenure of Downey’s predecessor, Caroline Mulroney. A Barrie-area MPP who worked as a real estate lawyer prior to entering provincial politics, Downey was appointed attorney general in this past June’s cabinet shuffle.
He pointed to auditor general Bonnie Lysyk’s 2018 report that raised concerns about the legal aid system, including that Legal Aid Ontario’s process for verifying lawyers’ billings was “ineffective” and that it wasn’t keeping track of the quality of legal services provided to the public. He said 27-per cent growth in funding over four years had not resulted in major improvements to modernize the system.
“We’re continuing to have conversations with everybody,” he said. “I think it’s important that they recognize that I recognize that the clinics are part of the foundation of legal aid in Ontario. They are an important part of legal aid, as is the private bar, as is the duty counsel system.”
He told the Star he has represented individuals with legal aid assistance, and had a law partner whose family law practice comprised almost exclusively legal aid-assisted clients. He wouldn’t say whether the system should be bracing for even more cuts down the road.
“Where we’re at right now is having a discussion about how the first changes are working, and if there’s anything there that we need to readjust or not,” he said.
“We’re not talking about doing more with less, we’re talking about doing things differently. That’s the vigorous discussion we’re having with (Legal Aid Ontario), it’s how we can deliver service to more people, the vulnerable population, in a really different way. Not just more of the same.”
The cuts have meant that Legal Aid Ontario will generally no longer fund private criminal lawyers to handle bail hearings, leaving it up to duty counsel. Lawyers have said this could overburden duty counsel who may not be able to dedicate enough time and resources to every hearing. As a result, duty counsel services have been reduced in other areas at courthouses.
“Cutting essential funding to clinics and lawyers delivering front-line services to those in desperate need of legal assistance is the wrong approach to solving Legal Aid’s budget challenges,” said Daniel Brown, vice-president of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association, who said the government should instead oversee cuts to Legal Aid Ontario’s internal bureaucracy.
Downey told the Star he has been talking to Legal Aid Ontario about the availability of duty counsel within the courts. “I’m concerned that people who need to access the system are able to get the services they need when they need it,” he said.
(Legal Aid Ontario told the Star they are discussing expanding some duty counsel services in family court.)
Among the $14.5 million in cuts to the clinic system that Legal Aid Ontario announced in June was $1 million slashed across 13 neighbourhood legal clinics in Toronto, as well as $1 million pulled from a 14th clinic, Parkdale Community Legal Services.
Eleven of Ontario’s community legal clinics applied to the agency for reconsideration of their funding cuts. Reconsideration hearings were taking place this week, with decisions expected in about a month.
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Some of the cutting has resulted in job losses or positions being left vacant, which has inevitably impacted front-line services to low-income people, said Lenny Abramowicz, executive director of the Association of Community Legal Clinics of Ontario.
He confirmed that Downey has been meeting with clinics and that he’s “cautiously optimistic” that there’s now an understanding at the ministry that the legal aid system needs investment and not cuts.
“We’ve had very good constructive conversations with the attorney general and this is an opportunity to move forward in a constructive way and to fix some of the damage that has been done,” Abramowicz said.