In its first budget, the Ford government is making a catastrophic 35% cut to Legal Aid Ontario’s funding. The cut, which amounts to $133 million in the coming year and increases to $164 million by 2021, will destroy the lives of some of Ontario’s most vulnerable people and add new costs and delays onto the already overburdened court system.
“Legal aid services were chronically underfunded to begin with,” said Legal Aid Ontario lawyer Dana Fisher, who also serves as a spokesperson of the Society of United Professionals, the union representing 350 Legal Aid Ontario lawyers. “These unprecedented cuts will decimate legal assistance for Ontario’s most vulnerable, including people fleeing abusive relationships, those facing unfair evictions, refugees, and people with mental illness.”
This cut takes particular aim at people receiving support through the refugee and immigration legal services program. In a memo to Legal Aid Ontario staff on April 11, 2019, the agency said, “The provincial government has indicated that the Province will no longer fund refugee and immigration law services, outside of any potential transition costs.”
While it may seem like a budget-saving measure, these cuts will increase the cost of court administration as more people show up in court unrepresented by legal counsel. According to numerous academic studies, unrepresented parties slow down trials and pursue more appeals as it is less likely they will receive a fair first trial.
“A cut of this magnitude is unprecedented and will absolutely mean job losses for legal aid lawyers,” said Scott Travers, president of the Society of United Professionals. “The premier promised no job losses and then no job losses for frontline workers. Legal Aid lawyers are on the front line of the justice system and this is going to hurt clients, hurt the courts and therefore hurt the people of Ontario.”
Immediately following the presentation of the budget on April 11, early reports indicated that these cuts would only take effect starting in 2021-2022 based on misleading language in the budget documents that hid the immediate impact from the public. However, as indicated by LAO’s all staff memo, a $133 million cut takes effect immediately and increases to the full $164 million cut in 2021-2022.
Society of United Professionals President Scott Travers, and Legal Aid Ontario Lawyer and SUP spokesperson Dana Fisher are available for comment.