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Ontario’s legal aid cuts strike most vulnerable | George Thomson

Thursday, May 16, 2019 @ 11:51 AM | By George Thomson

George Thomson %>
George Thomson
Compounding the government’s numerous other cuts to programs and services for Ontario’s most vulnerable, Ontario’s attorney general has opted to make things worse by slashing their capacity to receive legal help and to be heard in our courts and tribunals. She and the government have done this by imposing much larger cuts on legal aid than on her Ministry as a whole, protecting other Ministry programs while dramatically reducing access to justice for people who need legal assistance.

Among other negative impacts, the budget reductions being imposed will imperil what we believe is a hugely important part of the legal aid program: its internationally lauded community legal clinics.

We are a group (Friends of the Community Legal Clinics) whose experience over the last 45 years includes working in, overseeing the funding for and developing policy frameworks and critical analyses to guide the work of these remarkable community-focused law centres. Our career paths, which include government, academe, the judiciary and private practice are diverse, but our commitment to, and admiration for, the clinics bring us together on an ongoing basis to support their vital work.

That work — serving the neediest in all parts of the province — is accomplished by just 72 community clinics. They provide legal advice and representation concentrated on the most fundamental issues, such as a place to live and an income to pay for basic necessities.

Ontario’s legal clinics are lean. All staff serve clients; there is no distinct management cadre; there is no capacity to absorb cuts without reducing client services.

Ontario’s legal clinics are local. They are governed by, and work on specific priorities established by, volunteer boards from the communities they serve. Most often that community is a geographic one, but in a minority of instances the community a clinic serves is defined by an area of the law that can affect the whole province such as legal matters affecting the elderly or persons with disabilities.

Ontario’s legal clinics are strategic. They have never had enough funding to meet all the requests for assistance they receive. In the result they have developed effective strategies and community linkages to take on cases that can benefit many more individuals than the specific clients.

And yet, the attorney general has chosen to impose on legal aid well more than half of the budget cuts imposed by the government on her Ministry, even though the funding for legal aid is only about 20 per cent of the Ministry’s overall budget allocation.

The attorney general, the premier and others assert that the number of persons served by legal aid has dropped over the past four years. This is very misleading at best. In fact, the number of people served by legal aid has steadily increased, and the need for community clinic and other legal aid services has always outstripped the resources available to meet it.

The government has proposed a review of the legal aid system. We have written to the attorney general to offer our assistance. However, the credibility of any review becomes suspect when major reductions in funding are imposed before it has even begun.

In speeches given at different points in his illustrious career, Roy McMurtry, founding chair of the Friends and a former Progressive Conservative attorney general, has stated:

“… our freedoms are at best fragile … they depend on the ability of every citizen to assert in a court or tribunal their rights under law as well as receiving sound legal advice as to their obligations. Indeed, our laws and freedoms will only be as strong as the protection that they afford to the most vulnerable members of our community …

“… as Ontario’s attorney general I have the historical and constitutional responsibilities to ensure that civil liberties are protected in this province. Legal aid and in particular community law is perhaps the single most important mechanism that we have to make the equal rights dream a reality.”

We are proud of the consistent commitment of all previous Ontario governments, over more than four decades, to a vibrant clinic system. Ontario’s community clinics are a model throughout Canada and elsewhere.

The current attorney general’s misguided cuts represent a real risk to Ontario’s most vulnerable citizens. We strongly urge her and the government to reconsider this decision.

Friends of the Community Legal Clinics include Raj Anand, Ron Ellis, Doug Ewart, Elizabeth Goldberg, Thea Herman, Patricia Hughes, R. Roy McMurtry (chair emeritus) Mary Jane Mossman and myself.  

George Thomson’s illustrious career in law and public service began at the University of Western Ontario where he eventually became assistant dean of the law school. Since, he has practised law, sat as a provincial court judge and served as director of education for the Law Society of Ontario. Thomson was Ontario’s deputy minister of citizenship, deputy minister of justice and deputy attorney general of Canada. After a term as Skelton-Clark fellow at Queen’s University, he served as executive director of the National Judicial Institute and chaired Ontario’s Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform.

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