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Ontario Slashes Already Meagre Funding For Low-Income People In Court

You need tens of thousands of dollars to go to court in Canada, but only the poorest of the poor qualify for help.

The Ontario government has announced plans to significantly reduce the budget for legal aid for people in the justice system, a move that is likely to have an outsized impact on marginalized communities.

The provincial budget tabled Thursday aims to reduce spending on legal aid by $164 million annually, starting with the 2021-22 fiscal year. Total provincial spending on Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) was around $395 million in 2016, amounting to the lion's share of the agency's funding.

The savings will come at least in part from canceling a program that would have seen the number of people eligible for legal aid increased by 6 per cent per year over the coming years. The program was not actually increasing the number of people being helped, a government official told HuffPost Canada at a background briefing.

Watch: Chief justice calls Indigenous incarceration rate "unacceptable." Story continues below.

The official also suggested that the influx of refugees into Ontario from the United States over the past few years has put pressure on the legal aid system. While Ottawa has promised money for legal aid for refugees, the province is asking for another $45 million.

Section Ten of Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees a "right to counsel" for anyone who is arrested.

Among legal circles worldwide, Canada is known as a laggard on access to justice. The country has often ranked poorly on evaluations of justice systems, particularly because legal aid programs are less generous and available to fewer people than in many other countries.

Many low- and middle-income Canadians are saddled with huge legal bills when they find themselves before the courts. Hourly billing fees for a criminal lawyer are in the hundreds of dollars, and a five-day trial cost an average of $56,439 in 2014.

But to qualify for a lawyer from Legal Aid Ontario, an Ontario resident must have an income well below the low-income cutoff, and can own very few assets. A single person living alone would have to have an income of no more than $15,781 to qualify for legal aid.

"And if that person has assets over $1,118, she still won't qualify," former Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin said in a recent column at The Lawyer's Daily.

"This leaves a huge unmet need for legal assistance by the host of individuals and families who are working hard just to get by," McLachlin wrote.

She has been publicly raising the alarm for years about what she sees as insufficient access to justice for low- and middle-income Canadians.

'Nowhere to turn'

When these people find themselves in court, either over criminal, civil or domestic issues, "they have nowhere to turn," McLachlin continued. "The result? Literally thousands of people trying to do it themselves and a host of unrepresented people crowding the courts."

Social activists have argued for years that a lack of legal aid impacts marginalized communities more than others. In Canada, Indigenous communities and certain visible-minority communities are heavily overrepresented in the justice system.

Ontario's legal aid system was severely hobbled during the province's budget crisis in the early 1990s. The government of the time slashed funding to what was then known as the Ontario Legal Aid Plan. The number of people receiving assistance fell from around 200,000 annually to 50,000.

Funding has recovered only slowly since then.

For her part, McLachlin is advocating for the expansion of "pro-bono service centres" where lawyers volunteer their time to help individuals in need, such as Pro Bono Ontario's legal help centres located in courthouses.

"If we care about justice, we need to make strong pro bono service centres a permanent part of the justice system," she argued.

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