The Ford government introduced legislation on December 9 that literally removes access to justice from Legal Aid Ontario’s purpose. In tandem with their 30% cut to Legal Aid Ontario in last April’s budget, the Society, which represents Legal Aid Ontario lawyers as well as legal professionals at three legal clinics, called this the biggest attack on legal aid in Ontario’s history.
The so-called Smarter and Stronger Justice Act is an attack on legal representation for the poorest Ontarians. Beyond removing “access to justice” and “low income individuals” from the purpose of the Legal Aid Services Act, the legislation would radically alter Legal Aid Ontario’s mandate.
Existing legislation says Legal Aid Ontario “shall” provide representation to low-income people in four areas of law: criminal, family, clinic and mental health. Under the Ford government’s new bill, Legal Aid Ontario only “may” provide representation for those and other types of law.
“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, a Legal Aid Ontario lawyer and 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.”
To try to paper over the devastating news for access to justice in Ontario the Attorney General also announced the government will not implement the further cuts planned to Legal Aid Ontario over the next two years. In the 2019 budget, the Ford government cut $133 million from Legal Aid Ontario immediately and had planned for another $31 million over the next two years. The latter cut is no longer going forward.
“Not hurting access to justice more than they have already is the least this government could do,” said Fisher. “Announcing this at the same time as the amendments to the Legal Aid Services Act is a cynical ploy to distract from the extraordinary damage this bill will do to Ontario’s legal system and the most vulnerable people in that system.”
Media coverage of the Society’s position on these changes to the Legal Aid Services Act include:
- CP24/Canadian Press (Video): Ontario cancels planned future cuts to legal aid; this year's cut remains
- Toronto Star: Critics question changes in Ford government’s proposed legal aid law, like how the term ‘low-income’ is nowhere to be found
- Globe and Mail: Ontario reverses plan for deeper legal aid cuts
- Huffington Post: Doug Downey Walks Back Additional Cuts Planned for Legal Aid Ontario