Legal Aid Ontario got hit with a major cut in Thursday's budget as the provincial government pulled $133 million and said the organization could no longer use provincial funds for refugee and immigration cases.
The organization's CEO, David Field, said the cut is a significant blow.
"It's a 29 per cent reduction in the amount that they're going to be providing to us and you're right, they are the largest component of our budget," he said Thursday evening
In budget documents, the government said it expects to save $164 million by streamlining the delivery of legal aid by the 2020-21 fiscal year. The government insists that if the organization reforms, it can actually help more people with less funding.
Field said they are going to have to take a hard look at their finances, consider ways to streamline and offer more services online.
"We have to look at the entire organization and how we can adapt to the new fiscal reality that we're facing," he said.
The province sets the income threshold for when a person is eligible for legal aid. It increased that figure this month to make people with slightly higher incomes eligible. Now a single person making less than $17,731 per year qualifies, up from $16,728.
The provincial government has recently called on the federal government to cover the full cost, arguing they should provide Legal Aid Ontario $45 million to cover costs.
Field said the federal government is providing $16 million in funding this year for refugee law work, but the entire program costs about $34 million.
Jesse Robichaud, a spokesperson for Ontario Attorney General Caroline Mulroney, said refugee claims should be covered by the federal government.
"Ontario has called on the federal government to fully fund immigration and refugee legal aid services for cases proceeding before federal tribunals and in the Federal Court," he said in an email to CBC News.
Field said that change is coming at a bad time.
"We've seen a marked increase over the last three or four years in the number of refugee claims that we've been having to deal with. And so having the province now say that only the federal government's going to provide those services does represent a challenge for us," he said.
'Ripples throughout the justice system'
Dana Fisher, a legal aid lawyer herself and a spokesperson for the union representing 350 Legal Aid Ontario lawyers, said it's hard to see how cutting a third of the organization's budget can be accomplished through "streamlining."
"A cut of that nature is going to be horrific at any point in time, but the nature of it starting immediately is just going to cause ripples throughout the justice system," she said.
"You're looking at immediate impacts to defending people's rights to liberty, to access to justice, to people being able to fight for custody to their children and access to their children, including women who are fleeing domestic violence."
Fisher said the refugee law funding cut will put lives at risk.
"From the immigration perspective, these are individuals who are facing extradition and torture and persecution and these are real lives that are going to suffer as a result of these cuts," she said.
Robichaud also pointed to a review of legal aid by the auditor general that found room for improvement at the agency. He said if the agency embraces those improvements, the government is convinced it will be able to serve more clients even with the reduced funding.
Field said he's not convinced there is that much money to be found from the auditor's recommendations.
"There was not a lot of specifics that were in those reports that we haven't already looked at and considered," he said.
He also said if more self-represented people end up in the court system, that will slow down the administration of justice.