Every Monday morning, women escaping abusive situations would line up at a crisis centre in Guelph to meet with a duty counsellor and get legal advice.
The service was a partnership between Legal Aid Ontario and Guelph-Wellington Women in Crisis that worked exceptionally well, until it was suddenly cancelled last Friday, said Sly Castaldi, executive director of the centre that provides shelter and support for women and their children experiencing abuse and sexual violence.
“Dealing with violence is hard to do in and of itself, it’s complicated,” Castaldi said. “We were able to remove a lot of barriers for women needing access to family law. This was a nice, safe environment where they didn’t have to worry about bumping into anyone. They didn’t have to go to the courthouse and wait for duty counsel — that can be very intimidating.”
Legal Aid Ontario sent a fax on Friday to Women in Crisis notifying them that the duty counsellor would no longer provide legal advice at their location, effective immediately. Castaldi was forced to cancel July and August appointments set weeks in advance.
“It was devastating for our clients and now we’re figuring out what to do — who we are going to send them to,” she said. So far this year, the duty counsellor had helped vulnerable women, sometimes facing dangerous situations, at 122 appointments.
The service cost the government agency less than $330 a week, according to duty counsel tariff rates. Legal Aid Ontario did not provide this information when asked by HuffPost Canada.
“First of all, we need to be clear on what this was. It was an advice clinic’ which was a duty counsel being available on site for 3 hours. We needed to free up the staff who were doing that work so that they can take on work elsewhere,” said spokesperson Graeme Burk in an email. “Legal Aid Ontario already offers these advice services through different channels, and will continue to do so.”
Burk pointed to a Guelph-based family law information centre at the courthouse, and call centre, and that legal aid continues to offer two hours of free advice to victims of domestic abuse, regardless of whether they qualify for legal aid.
But for the women who relied on the duty counsellor, the change is devastating, Castaldi said. “Whenever public policy changes, you also have to remember that those who are most vulnerable are impacted first and foremost.”
Legal aid also cancelled a three-hour session Monday afternoons at the Legal Clinic of Guelph and Wellington County. Between the two locations, the duty counsellor would help a total of 12 to 16 people per week. That may not seem like a lot of clients to Legal Aid Ontario, but it was a success for the clinic, said Anthea Millikin, executive director and lawyer.
“We’d line up chairs in the lobby and people would take a number and line up early,” Millikin said. “And (the duty counsellor) would make sure the last person was seen and heard. Certainly to us, it was very busy and well received. This is a huge loss.”
As legal aid grapples with a $75 million budget cut this year, it’s making changes to legal clinics and duty counsel services across the province, impacting family and criminal courts. It will have to find another $90 million in savings over the next two years.
At family courthouses, duty counsel lawyers have been instructed to assist only eligible clients at their first court appearance for 20 minutes.
Many of these clients are parents up against children aid societies, and they usually have to go to court three or four times over the course of their case regarding supervision orders, negotiating access, returning children home and taking drug tests.
It’s not always possible for duty counsel to give them advice, and then help them understand how to get a lawyer through legal aid in that amount of time, some experts say.
“These cuts to duty counsel mean that if the parent does not have a lawyer after the first court appearance, there will be no in-court assistance for the parent,” said Tammy Law, a family lawyer and president of the Ontario Association of Child Protection Lawyers.
Law said the “erosion of duty counsel services” will result in more wrongful “dispositions” (the family law term for convictions) and miscarriages of justice.
Mira Pilch, a child protection lawyer who has worked for the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto, and then as duty counsel and in private practice, said the new restrictions trample on parents and children’s rights.
“By basically putting up too many hurdles for parents to participate and advocate, you’re denying children the right to pursue a relationship,” she said.
Pilch recently stopped working as duty counsel when she learned changes were coming.
“I don’t know logistically how court will run without this constant flow of duty counsellors,” Pilch said, adding that on any weekday at the busiests family courthouses in the province there’s “wall-to-wall people” who need help.
“They don’t know what judge they’re seeing, what the case is about, how to get an interpreter. It’s so crazy. All I was going to be doing is saying no to people and that’s very unpleasant when you know you can help them but you’re not allowed.”
Legal Aid Ontario said for those eligible for legal aid, they anticipate no delays.