Ontario's cuts to legal aid will hurt the poorest
It’s hard to fathom the fallout from the Ford government’s short-sighted decision to slash Legal Aid Ontario’s already inadequate budget by 30 per cent.
The agency, established to provide legal services to the province’s most vulnerable citizens, was struggling to meet the need even before this.
Its budget was so squeezed, in fact, that it could represent only people who are making less than about $17,000 a year. That’s far below the poverty line.
Even then, coverage was limited.
Indeed, in December 2016 the agency announced it would provide funding to pay for criminal defence lawyers only in cases where there is a “substantial likelihood of incarceration for the accused.”
That left thousands out in the cold. They may not be facing jail time, but without proper representation they could potentially be deported, fired or slapped with a hefty fine — never mind end up with a criminal record.
Now the agency will somehow have to operate on $133 million less this fiscal year, and another $31 million less next year.
How can it possibly do that? By offering fewer services to fewer people.
That means more people will end up representing themselves in court. That’s sure to exacerbate the backlog in the courts and increase costs that the province will be on the hook for because of this penny-wise, pound-foolish move.
That’s because people representing themselves need judges to step in for them to help them through the legal maze. And that means cases — from partner abuse to child custody, for example — take longer to adjudicate and cost more.
But this isn’t just a money issue. Three years ago the Supreme Court of Canada imposed strict time limits on criminal trials, citing a “culture of complacency” among governments that has left the justice system underfunded.
Since then people charged with such horrific crimes such as child abuse, murder, manslaughter and sexual assault against minors have been set free, their guilt untested, because their cases dragged on for too long.
So what does the Ford government do? Instead of investing in legal aid to help reduce the backlog that leads to court delays for all cases, it has cut the agency’s meagre funding.
To make matters worse, it did more than that.
It also served notice that the province will no longer cover the legal costs of refugee and immigration cases.
That could lead to “life-threatening consequences, including detention, torture and possibly even death after deportation to the places from which they fled,” the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers and the Ontario Refugee Lawyers Association said in a joint statement.
The fact is refugee claimants who are represented by lawyers have an acceptance rate of 57 per cent. Only 15 per cent of those representing themselves get in, though they may be in just as much danger.
Ontario insists Ottawa will pick up the cost of legal help for asylum seekers. But it’s far from clear that will be adequate. Legal Aid Ontario says the annual cost of helping refugees is about $45 million, but the federal government contributes only $16 million of that.
During last year’s provincial election campaign, Premier Doug Ford repeatedly promised to reduce Ontario’s deficit by $6 billion simply by finding efficiencies. But so far this government has demonstrated that its idea of an efficiency is to stick it to the poor.
To wit, it cut planned increases to welfare payments, ended a basic income pilot program, and dismantled labour protections for precarious workers.
Now it has slashed the legal aid budget, which Attorney General Caroline Mulroney assured the Legislature is still more than adequate to “make sure that lower-income Ontarians continue to have access to justice that they need.”
The facts, unfortunately, suggest that simply isn’t true.