Province announces an end to further cuts to legal aid clinics

AUNDECK OMNI KANING—Legal aid clinics and services in Ontario received some great news earlier this week from the province of Ontario, with the introduction of the new Legal Aid Services Act and Legal Aid’s budget for 2020-2021.

“We received a Christmas present from Ontario Premier Doug Ford and his government,” stated Michael Shain, executive director of the Manitoulin Legal Clinic, this past Tuesday.  

Mr. Shain explained, “last year the province had promised two rounds of cuts, the first was taking 30 percent out of the budget across the system which saw a reduction in the clinic’s budget, certificate program and the work duty counsel was permitted to do. So, for instance, there were massive cuts in specialized service clinics in Toronto, and modest cuts to our budget which reduced us to a bare bones budget.”

“Our board had been wondering what was coming down next,” he said, noting further cuts would mean reductions in staff and services at the local clinic.

However, in the omnibus bill presented by Attorney General Doug Downey on Monday, “the second round of those planned cuts have been eliminated,” continued Mr. Shain. “This is huge, and great news for us and legal aid clinics throughout the province. It does nothing to sort of put our budget back to where it was, but we don’t have to look at further cuts, so we are breathing a little easier. This was a huge change in the government’s direction. There are lots of social services that are critical, like healthcare and education and legal services being provided to the poor who can’t afford it becomes a critical aspect as well.”

The Ontario government is taking action to make it easier, faster and more affordable for people to access the justice system. On Monday, Mr. Downey introduced the Smarter and Stronger Justice Act to simplify a “complex and outdated justice system.” 

If passed, the bill will modernize and improve how legal aid services are delivered, class actions are handled, court processes are administered and make life easier for Ontarians by paving the way to allow identities and legal documents to be verified online.

“We have heard loud and clear from people across Ontario that the justice system has grown too complex and outdated, and needs to better support the growth of safer communities while standing up for victims of crime and law-abiding citizens,” said Mr. Downey, in a press release. “Our government is proposing smart and sensible reforms that will allow people to spend less time and money resolving their legal matters while strengthening access to the legal supports Ontarians need.”

Included in this proposed legislation are amendments that give Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) the tools it needs to help clients resolve their legal issues faster and with fewer road blocks. The proposed changes build on the strengths of community legal clinics, duty counsel and the use of private bar certificates to fix or replace outdated processes. They also provide LAO the authority to make rules about operational matters. As a result of these changes, LAO could seamlessly and sustainably provide high-quality services to clients where and when they need them.

“The new Legal Aid Services Act is an important step towards improving access to justice in Ontario. It offers opportunities for innovation and allows us to address gaps in the justice system. This legislation would allow Legal Aid Ontario and its valued service providers—including staff, clinics and the private bar—to better serve clients,” said David Field, CEO of LAO.

The attorney general also confirmed that, following extensive consultations, LAO’s 2020-2021 funding will be maintained at its current levels. Other proposed amendments would move Ontario toward a stronger and smarter justice system by: enhancing Ontario’s civil forfeiture laws to ensure crime does not pay and proceeds of crime are used to support victims of illegal activity; prioritizing the interests of Ontarians in class action lawsuits so they receive faster, more transparent and more meaningful compensation and access to justice; making it easier for cyberbullying victims to sue offenders convicted of the offence of non-consensual distribution of an intimate image; allowing for a simplified procedure for small estates, making it less costly to administer estates of a modest value; paving the way to allow for the online verification of identity and legal documents for transactions such as real estate agreements, gifting a used vehicle to a family member or starting a claim in court; increasing the maximum fine for lawyers and paralegals who engage in professional misconduct and stopping the practice of government footing the bill for legal fees incurred by judges and justices of the peace who are dismissed due to misconduct; and amending the death registration process to ease the burden from families when faced with registering the death of a loved one in the absence of their remains.

“We are very pleased Attorney General Downey continues to recognize the foundational role community legal clinics play in creating a strong Ontario justice system that protects vulnerable members of our communities and provides them with the legal services they need,” said Trudy McCormick, co-chair of the Association of Community Legal Clinics of Ontario (ACLCO).

ACLCO noted in a release it is pleased that the new legislation recognizes the important role independent community clinics continue to play in providing crucial poverty law services to Ontario’s most vulnerable communities. “We are also pleased to hear that further budget reductions to legal aid have been taken off the table. It is now time for the government and Legal Aid Ontario to begin work on repairing the damage done by this year’s legal aid budget cuts.”

The ACLCO release continued, “in the wake of the provincial government’s spring budget (containing cuts to legal aid in 2019 and further cuts in 2020), and its announcement of ‘Legal Aid Modernization’ (including a statutory review and a specific review of the community clinic model itself) the ACLCO identified three vital goals: 1. Preservation of the fundamental components of the community clinic model in the new legislation, 2. A roll back of planned further cuts for legal aid in the 2020 budget, and 3. Reinvestment of resources into clinics in response to the disastrous cuts that flowed from the 2019 budget.”

“Moreover, (Mr.) Downey has announced the planned cuts to the legal aid budget for next year have been eliminated. Although we now must turn our attention to the next goal of securing a reinvestment of funds in the clinic system in response to this year’s cuts, the elimination of next year’s cuts at least creates an environment where we can feel relatively secure and plan for the future,” the release says. 

“We’re very pleased, this was a wonderful announcement,” stated Mr. Shain. “It gives us some breathing room. It won’t restore our budget to where it was, but there won’t be further cuts next year.”