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 — Neville Jacobs would lie in bed and never fall asleep.
He’d watch the clock tick down — 11 p.m., 1 a.m., 2 a.m. — until daybreak. Then he’d rise, exhausted, and attempt to do his work as a pastor at a Toronto church. For three years in the early-2000s, Jacobs said he suffered from relentless insomnia.
“I couldn’t function. I couldn’t focus,” he said, now 72. “I was like a drugged man living in a daze, day in and day out.”
Jacobs also had an unsuccessful knee surgery that caused him chronic pain. In 2004, his doctor declared him permanently disabled and no longer able to work, Jacobs said. He applied for financial help through the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), but was denied.
“They don’t really give you any reason, just that you’re entitled to a review,” said Jacobs. Unable to pay his mortgage, about to lose his house, and not sure how to appeal ODSP’s decision, Jacobs “was teetering on the brink of despair, not knowing where to turn.”
But then, through a friend at a local food bank, Jacobs heard of a place that could help — Scarborough Community Legal Services. Years later, he still remembers walking through the legal clinic doors where he was paired with a paralegal caseworker who immediately became his advocate.
“She talked to me every time not as a number on a long line of down and outs. No, I was Neville Jacobs, a human person in desperate need of financial help,” he said.
With the legal clinic’s assistance, Jacobs filed an appeal, had his case heard at the ODSP tribunal, and won. He doesn’t underestimate the clinic’s role in saving him from the worst.
“If it hadn’t been for the intervention of Scarborough legal services, I would’ve been homeless, or possibly dead by now,” Jacobs said.
Jacobs’ case is not exceptional. Every year across Ontario, 74 community legal clinics help more than 9,000 low-income people appeal ODSP decisions, the Auditor General reported last year. Their clients win three-quarters of cases, ensuring they have a source of income while grappling with debilitating physical and mental disabilities.
Behind the scenes, legal clinics also help tenants fight illegal evictions, and refugees get permanent residency or reunite with family members, among other services. But facing significant budget cuts, frontline workers warn they’ll be forced to turn away people in need — and that will cost the government and communities in the long run.
“Constituents who are facing some of the most difficult challenges of their lives ... will be forced into a situation of even deeper vulnerability.”
This spring the province slashed Legal Aid Ontario’s budget by 30 per cent, from $456 million to $323 million, and plans to reduce annual funding by another $31 million by 2021-2022. Legal Aid Ontario said it will cut its $93-million legal clinic budget by $15 million. It will allocate money to clinics with the highest need, while others face larger cuts.
The Ministry of the Attorney General said it expects Legal Aid Ontario to become more efficient.
But even small cuts to legal clinics’ already tight budgets will have devastating impacts, including layoffs of lawyers and paralegals who each help hundreds of people a year navigate tribunals, boards and bureaucracies, and access justice, frontline workers say. Clinics already have more clients than they can handle, and they will have to turn even more of those people away.
At a news conference earlier this month, Yodit Edemariam, a lawyer at the Rexdale Community Legal Clinic warned that, “The carefully woven fabric of service coordination and support will be eroded by the cuts to Legal Aid Ontario’s budget.
“Constituents who are facing some of the most difficult challenges of their lives — eviction, job loss, uncertain immigration status, or denial of life-sustaining disability benefits — will be forced into a situation of even deeper vulnerability.”
Jack de Klerk, director of Neighbourhood Legal Services in east downtown Toronto, expects the effects to be felt beyond the justice system.
“Our services help a lot of people see themselves in society and cuts back on alienation,” de Klerk said. “If people have a good home, they’ll contribute in other ways, like Neville.”
Jacobs joined the Scarborough Community Legal Services board in 2007, where he’s continued to help his community and connect people to the same services that saved him.
“I felt that I have a duty to help other people like myself who are trampled upon, the leftovers of society,” Jacobs said. “Vulnerability and adversity make you more understanding. My sense of compassion was deepened.”
Remilde Drummond, 62, was a home support worker when she began experiencing chronic pain linked to fibromyalgia. Unable to work, and “lost in life” with a husband and two children to help support, she said she applied for disability benefits through the Canadian Pension Plan in 2013. She was denied, but found the Rexdale clinic.
“They took my case and I found I could believe in them,” Drummond said. A clinic lawyer represented her at the appeal board and won. “Thank God for the Rexdale legal centre. I will always thank them for that.”
Drummond said the legal aid cuts “are the worst thing” the province could do.
“I know many people in our community need help like me. They don’t have the health to work. They cannot (afford) a lawyer. It’s the truth.”
Legal clinic services are significantly cheaper than alternative public services. Every dollar spent on legal aid saves the province $6 in other areas because it reduces evictions, homelessness, illnesses and poverty, and makes civil and criminal courts more efficient, according to a Canadian Bar Association report.
An ODSP recipient with no dependents receives up to $1,169 a month. In comparison, a shelter bed costs the province $2,100 a month; a long-term care bed $3,960; a correctional facility bed $4,300; and a hospital bed $13,500, reported the Auditor General.
“Cutting legal aid is not a smart bit of political maneuvering. Don’t cut back where the community needs money,” said de Klerk.
With 10 full-time employees, Neighbourhood Legal Services already struggles to keep up with a growing demand, de Klerk said. Most of their work centres on fighting evictions and appealing income decisions, including ODSP.
Scarborough Community Legal Services is just as busy, said executive director Renee Griffin. “We can’t meet our community’s demand.” With a $1.8 million total budget, the clinic handles more than 2,500 cases a year, 40 per cent related to housing, she said. It also refers people to other services.
“Our biggest challenge right now, everyday, is when people walk in and we have to say, ‘We can’t help you,’” de Klerk said.
Clinics turn away people who don’t qualify for legal aid, which is the vast majority of Ontario residents, including minimum wage earners and seniors living off the Canadian Pension Plan.
The province has one of the lowest legal aid income cut-offs in Canada at $17,731 for one person with no dependents. That’s despite Statistics Canada considering Canadians who earn $22,133 or less as impoverished. Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, Quebec, New Brunswick and all three territories provide legal aid services to people with incomes ranging from $20,000 to $50,000 a year.
For people who do qualify, the legal clinic will at the very least give them advice, de Klerk said. Depending on the severity of a person’s circumstances, lawyers may also help them gather documents, write letters and prepare for appeals, or represent them at court and tribunals.
Since de Klerk became director in 1998, his legal clinic has not had a budget increase of more than three per cent. Almost every year it’s been between one and two per cent. The only part of the clinic’s current $1.2 million-budget it could cut without affecting service is perhaps office supplies, de Klerk said.
“Maybe paper is discretionary? A couple of pens? The only place we can make a difference is cutting staff. Staff will lose their jobs. Their clients won’t have access to services anymore.”