TORONTO — Ontario’s attorney general said he would backtrack on some planned cuts to legal aid as he unveiled a suite of changes to the justice system Monday.
The province’s Progressive Conservative government had announced in its 2019 budget that it would slash $164 million in funding — almost half of Legal Aid Ontario’s 2018 provincial funding — over the next three years.
The $133-million cut made this year will stay in place but a planned $31-million in additional cuts won’t go ahead, government officials told HuffPost Canada.
“We decided that we’re at a level where it’s sustainable and it’s efficient and there’s opportunity to expand service with current funding,” Attorney General Doug Downey told reporters at Queen’s Park.
“We decided that we’re at a level where it’s sustainable and it’s efficient and there’s opportunity to expand service with current funding.”
He had just introduced an 84-page bill that makes changes to 20 existing laws, including the Legal Aid Services Act.
The reforms will give Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) more control over how it provides services, Downey said.
LAO provides legal services for people who can’t afford a lawyer. A single person has to earn less than $22,700 to qualify for its services. Legal clinics that support injured workers and workers fighting unjust firings have already laid off staff because of the cuts made so far this year.
One lawyer called the changes a “classic ploy” that could further erode legal aid in Ontario.
“We are deeply concerned,” said Dana Fisher, local vice president for the Society of United Professionals, a union that represents legal aid lawyers.
She said the latest changes to the law will end a legal requirement for LAO to provide services in criminal law, family law, clinic law and mental health law.
“They’ve already stripped the funding and now they’re in a position where the services could be stripped,” Fisher said.
“I think it’s appalling to suggest that there was no harm done,” by the cuts already made, she added. “There are people across this province who need access to Legal Aid Ontario and don’t get access to the services that they need.”
The cuts had been panned by lawyers, legal clinic staff, and even the provincial agency’s own CEO.
In a letter to former attorney general Caroline Mulroney, LAO CEO David Field said the drastic cuts would hurt low-income clients.
“Although we anticipated a reduction in our allocation … the daunting size of the reduction has truly taken us by surprise,” Field said in the April 17 letter, obtained by HuffPost Canada through a freedom of information request.
“We are quite concerned about our ability to respond to this turn of events without additional detrimental impact on client services. It will be far from easy.”
“... the daunting size of the reduction has truly taken us by surprise.”
LAO’s chair told reporters Monday that the cuts did create challenges, but the new law would make things easier.
Under the current rules, LAO can’t refer a client to a lawyer who will accept their legal aid certificate, Charles Harnick said. That will change when the new rules are passed and make things easier for clients, he said.
“If people are looking for legal aid, we are open for business,” the chair, appointed by Downey’s predecessor Caroline Mulroney, said.
The government said Downey’s bill, the Smarter and Stronger Justice Act, would give LAO more power over the services it offers, make it easier for victims to sue people who share intimate images without consent, simplify the rules for administering small estates and increase fines for lawyers and paralegals who engage in misconduct.
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