Legal aid is important. Ford government’s cuts will hurt us all.

June 13th, 2019 by Brynn Leger

The Ontario government announced considerable cuts to funding Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) as part of its first budget released in April 2019. The budget cuts provide for a nearly 30% reduction in the government’s funding to LAO, which will increase to a 40% cut in future years. LAO funds legal services for those who cannot afford representation in Ontario. They do this by providing certificates to lawyers to compensate them for representing individual clients, primarily in criminal and family law matters. They also fund community legal clinics, which in turn provide legal representation to community members, and also carry out law reform and community organizing initiatives. The province is separated into “catchment areas,” with each catchment area having a designated legal clinic. There are also specialty legal clinics, which focus on certain areas of law such as disability, HIV/AIDS, or injured workers.

On June 12, 2019, LAO announced how those cuts will be applied in the coming year.  LAO will base cuts to legal clinics on low‑income population in each catchment area and other supports available. Toronto clinics will see the largest cuts based on these recalculations. LAO is also urging clinics to preserve one‑on‑one client work and scale back its law reform and community organizing work. These changes are in addition to the freeze on providing new provincial funding for immigration and refugee law services which was announced back in April.

One clinic which will be considerably impacted by these LAO funding cuts is Parkdale Community Legal Services (PCLS). PCLS has been serving the Parkdale community in Toronto for over 40 years, and also functions as a student clinical education program, offering 20 student placements each year. It works in the areas of employment, housing, social assistance and immigration law. It has struggled this year to secure a lease for a new location in the neighbourhood, lacking a secure commitment from LAO to support the move. The latest announcement from LAO will mean a $1,000,000.00 cut to the PCLS budget.

LAO explains this large cut by saying that the Parkdale neighbourhood has changed significantly since PCLS first opened and, due to low‑income individuals being driven out of the area by gentrification, the number of individuals that PCLS serves has reduced significantly.

Lenny Abramowicz, executive director of the Association of Community Legal Clinics of Ontario, on the other hand, calls these cuts a “directed attack” on the city of Toronto and the law reform initiatives that are most challenging to the government.

Criminal lawyer, Michael Spratt, further argues that these cuts to LAO will end up costing the province more than it will save, through significant delays in the justice system.

As for PCLS, it is unclear what the budget cuts will mean, especially in light of its uncertainty around relocating. As a former caseworker in the workers’ rights division at PCLS, I can say with certainty that cuts to services will have significant impacts on the Parkdale community, and losing the clinic altogether would be devastating to low‑income residents, as well as potential student participants. In the workers’ rights division, we helped individuals who had been terminated from their jobs receive adequate compensation from their employers, and represented workers asserting their human rights in the face of discrimination, to name just a few. We sometimes accepted clients outside of our catchment area if they were unable to access representation for their employment issues in areas where they lived. During my time, I represented a number of live‑in caregivers, who were often racialized women for whom losing employment also meant losing their housing and their immigration status in Canada. These individuals require – and deserve – legal representation. Without community legal clinics, many would struggle to learn about and assert their rights.

PCLS has been incredibly active in mobilizing the Parkdale community and, by doing so, is able to stretch their resources to have a positive impact on the greatest number of individuals possible. This notably includes successful rent strikes in Parkdale, which enabled residents to maintain affordable housing in the face of being pushed out by landlords. In the workers’ rights division, we volunteered regularly at the Workers’ Action Centre, assisting individuals on a drop‑in basis with their employment law questions. We also were involved with the Fight for $15 and Fairness Campaign. This would not technically be considered individual client work, but was certainly of benefit to individuals in need.

The balance between representing individual clients and participating in community work and law reform was emphasized to us as students by PCLS. The clinic recognized that systemic change is necessary to disrupt the cycle of poverty and its effects, which would ultimately have the greatest positive impacts on the community. LAO’s directive to cut back on community organizing efforts would mean a reduction in these efforts, which is ultimately detrimental to Ontario’s most vulnerable.

My experience at PCLS is as one of many budding lawyers who have had the opportunity to engage with poverty law through this and other experiential education programs. Having an awareness of the pressing issues in the communities where we live, and the ability of the legal profession to improve this situation, is imperative to encouraging a generation of progressive lawyers.

At Iler Campbell, we often (although not as often as one might hope) interact with legal clinics representing the opposing party. This might be an employee, tenant or housing co‑op member who sought assistance at their local community legal clinic. Whenever these individuals have representation, it makes the process smoother, regardless of what the issue is. Indeed, when we are opposing an individual who is not represented, we routinely direct them to their nearest community legal clinic and suggest that they seek advice.

In our adversarial justice system, we ought to have a duty to facilitate representation for those who cannot afford to pay for a lawyer. Otherwise, individuals face a greater chance of exploitation by those who can afford representation which is an unacceptable barrier to justice. For all of the talk from law schools and the legal profession around making access to justice a priority, we are in a political climate right now that seems fundamentally at odds with those aims. The government’s cuts to LAO signal that access to justice is not a priority in Ontario. LAO’s subsequent cuts to legal clinics and especially to their community organizing work will be felt by low‑income populations across the province and, indeed, the justice system as a whole.


Filed in: Civil Rights

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