This story is a part of UNAIDED, a HuffPost Canada series that examines the effects of recent funding cuts to Ontario’s legal aid system and the impacts on the vulnerable people who rely on it to navigate our complicated justice system.
TORONTO — An Ontario legal clinic that specializes in tenant rights says it may have to lay off staff because of budget cuts imposed by Premier Doug Ford’s government.
“It’s deep enough that it affects a number of positions that we’re going to be able to offer,” Kenn Hale, director of legal services at the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario (ACTO), told HuffPost Canada.
The centre will see more than $500,000 trimmed from its $3.2-million budget over the next two years.
ACTO employs eight tenant duty counsel, who are lawyers that give free advice to tenants walking into the Landlord Tenant Board hearings. It also helps tenants fight illegal evictions and unfair rent increases and does advocacy work on behalf of renters as a whole.
Twenty people work at ACTO all together.
Legal Aid Ontario is cutting the budget for tenant duty counsel by 10 per cent across the province, officials told HuffPost Canada at a briefing Tuesday. ACTO’s entire budget for training, advocacy and reform work is also being eliminated.
Legal Aid Ontario released its plan to cut spending Wednesday after the Ontario government announced that it would slash $164 million in funding for the agency, which amounts to about 40 per cent of its total budget.
“I think that it’s absolutely devastating,” Tracey Lasook, a paralegal who serves as tenant duty counsel in Thunder Bay, Ont., told HuffPost while in Toronto for what will likely be ACTO’s last training conference.
Just last week, she said she helped five families avoid eviction.
“I think it’s absolutely essential that tenant duty counsel is available ... Because people show up there who have no idea what’s going on,” Lasook said.
“I just can’t imagine what we’re going to do with less money when we get so little as it is.”
Clinics aren’t exactly sure how the 10-per-cent cut to tenant duty counsel will affect staffing and services, but ACTO lawyer Andrew Hwang said that resources are already so stretched, there are days when no tenant duty counsel is present at the boards in Mississauga and Scarborough.
“Everybody’s basically being pushed to the limit,” he told HuffPost. “We are feeling that we are short-changing the tenants of Toronto.”
He said Legal Aid Ontario made its decision based on wrong assumptions.
“Everybody’s basically being pushed to the limit.”
The agency said people in Toronto can deal with cuts more easily than people in the north because they can get on public transit and go to another clinic if their local clinic doesn’t have time for them.
To that point, Hwang recalls someone he met last year. The client couldn’t afford bus fare, so he left home at 5 a.m. on the morning of his hearing to walk more than 20 km from Brampton to the Landlord Tenant Board office in Mississauga, he said.
“I think it’s unfortunate to create that difference when it happens here too.”
Asked how he feels about the premier’s promise that his budget cuts would not affect frontline services, Hwang took a deep breath.
“I’m trying not to go off.”
“Even though frontline and systemic, they try to draw the semantic difference, I see it as right hand and left hand on the same body … If you cut one, it doesn’t necessarily mean the other can carry on as they are without any consequences,” he said.
“Frontline workers like duty counsel, we put out smaller fires on an everyday basis. Our colleagues who do systemic work put out a bigger fire that’s simmering.”
He said ACTO’s advocacy work was instrumental in getting Ontario’s previous government to close a loophole that let landlords of newer buildings raise rents by huge amounts.
“Without them, the rent control cap … would not have come about. Which affects my work, too, because everybody’s coming to me saying, ‘The landlord wants to increase my rent by $500.’”
Hale said advocacy work should be considered an essential part of the legal clinic model.
“To me, it is a direct service,” he said. “We’re in there, speaking to the politicians, speaking to the decision-makers, directly on behalf of the tenants who are going to have to pay those bills.”
ACTO writes analyses so that MPPs and journalists can understand the impact of proposed laws on tenants. It’s also taken the federal government to court and testified at a UN committee that went on to criticize Canada for failing to do more on affordable housing.
“Having input into these laws really has direct impact on people’s lives. If we’re not there, no one’s doing that stuff,” Hale said.
Legal Aid Ontario said on Tuesday that it acknowledges the work is valuable.
“We recognize that there is value in the systemic work because it creates efficiencies,” vice-president of clinic law services Jayne Mallin said.
“We just don’t have the luxury to continue.”
Hale said his biggest concern isn’t how the clinic will cope this year, but what’s coming next.
Cuts aren’t even halfway done
Legal Aid Ontario is only making about $70 million in cuts this year, out of the total $164 million the Progressive Conservatives want them to make.
A spokeswoman for Attorney General Caroline Mulroney said that clinics are “still free to do advocacy or other work,” they just won’t receive funding for it.
“LAO had to adjust funding allocations to ensure their resources were focused on direct front line services,” spokeswoman Alexandra Adamo told HuffPost by email.
“There is no doubt that some lawyers and other special interest groups will resist renewed accountability with public dollars.”
The Ministry of the Attorney General has also launched a “modernization” review of all legal aid services to be finished March 2020.
Hale said he hopes the review is about improving public services and doesn’t become a “political battle.”
“Not wasting public money is a good thing. Providing public service is a good thing,” he said.
“There has to be a balance. It can’t just be that it’s always good to cut.”
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