Ontario cancels planned future cuts to legal aid; this year's cut remains

TORONTO — Ontario's attorney general is cancelling planned cuts to legal aid funding, but this year's 30-per-cent budget cut is being made permanent.

Doug Downey announced Monday that the current funding level will continue, but there won't be further reductions to Legal Aid Ontario's budget.

"We had a lot of consultation and we talked to people in the field who are delivering service, receiving the service, those trying to run the agency, so we decided that we are at a level where it's sustainable, it's efficient and there's opportunity to expand service with current funding," he said.

A $133-million cut to legal aid, which was supposed to rise by $31 million by 2021-22, was one of the first of a flood of cuts to trickle out after the Progressive Conservative government's spring budget.

Legal Aid Ontario chair Charles Harnick said there have been some issues as a result of the lower funding, such as trouble deploying duty counsel and seeing job losses at legal aid clinics. But, he said, the organization was mostly able to avoid a direct impact to one-on-one client services.

"I'm very grateful that there will be no further reductions to our budget," he said. "It allows us to have the stability that we need to plan and to continue to move forward."

NDP critic Gurratan Singh called for a full reversal of this year's cuts.

"The lion's share of the cuts have gone forward," he said. "We've seen the impact of that. It's had real impacts today."

Downey made the announcement after he introduced legislation that would make changes to more than 20 different acts, with a goal of modernizing parts of what he called an "outdated, complex" justice system.

Some of those changes will affect Legal Aid Ontario — changes that Harnick called positive — including allowing it to use a mix of service providers, such as private practice lawyers and community legal organizations, and expanding its scope to include summary advice, alternative dispute resolution services, and unbundled legal services for part of a case.

The union representing legal aid lawyers is decrying wording in the new legislation.

Currently the law says Legal Aid Ontario "shall" provide representation to low-income people in criminal, family, clinic and mental health law, but the new bill uses the word "may."

"This change in law might sound like semantics but for thousands of poor Ontarians turning 'shall' into 'may' is the difference between being guaranteed a lawyer and losing their right to legal representation," said Dana Fisher, vice-president of the Society of United Professionals' Legal Aid Ontario Lawyers' local.

"Combined with the Ford government's severe and cruel Legal Aid Ontario cut, this bill amounts to passing the buck to Legal Aid Ontario to implement cuts without the agency being constrained by a legal mandate that protects the vulnerable people who need legal aid."

Another change includes a "more stringent test" for certifying lawsuits as class actions.

"It's very easy to get certified as a class action," Downey said. "It's very simple. So that's what people were doing, is they were certifying the class actions then they were getting to work about trying to make the case and if they couldn't make the case then it just sat dormant."

The legislation would also require people to file judicial review applications within 30 days, sharply increase the maximum fine for lawyers guilty of professional misconduct from $10,000 to $100,000, and stop judges and justices of the peace removed from office due to misconduct from billing taxpayers for legal fees.

"It's offensive when I'm required to sign off on fees for somebody who's been found to have done misconduct as a judge or a JP and we have to pay their legal fees," Downey said. "For those who are accused of misconduct but not found to have done something, then I think it's fair."

Other proposed changes include allowing for notarization online, removing some requirements for people applying for the legal authority to manage a small estate, and making it easier for the government to seize property under a civil forfeiture in uncontested cases.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 9, 2019.

Allison Jones, The Canadian Press